I come from a family of book people. My mother was a writer, my father a printer, my uncle an author. As a child, I got used to the sound of an IBM electric typewriter clickity-clacking away long into the night. Back then, publishers were the gatekeepers. Books weren't published without them. Bookstores, authors, and readers all waited patiently for publishers to pass judgment, select material, and let editorial in to the promised land. Those were heady times.
Today, according to R.R. Bowker, there are more than one million books published a year. Certainly there's great material in that haystack. But for most readers, the result is an avalanche of content. Many of my publishing friends are bemoaning the end of the book world. And until I wrote a book, I tended to agree.
When I began, my launch pad consisted of a collection of two years of blog posts that had helped me develop a thesis. As the posts evolved into a book-shaped document, I thought I'd done my job. I shipped off 300-plus pages to my editor and expected to get back some fact-checking questions and a spell check. Instead, the edits were detailed, probing, and frankly a bit annoying.
It had been a while since anyone had said much about my writing other than "thanks" and "posted." Blogging, you see, is the business of demanding and delivering disposable writing. But my publisher had a different level of expectation: it wanted clarity, accuracy, excellence—a polished work that could withstand the test of time. Four editorial passes later, the book is much better. And now I understand the difference between the speed and brevity of "instant publishing" and the painstaking refinement that goes into making a serious book.
While riding this steep learning curve as a first-time author, I actually proved my own thesis in a way that I didn't anticipate. In this new era of unprecedented content proliferation, publishers don't fade away—they become even more important. Imprints have the opportunity to become icons of trust and quality in a noisy world, finding, filtering, and magnifying talent. So publishers must have a clear understanding of what their imprint means to both readers and authors.
From an editorial and production standpoint, publishers have historically treated the finished book as the finish line, with any important updates being made in subsequent reprints or new editions. And publishers shouldn't compromise their high standards. But the shift from physical goods to digital devices means that books will no longer be locked in frozen documents. They'll become living, changing texts, stored on a variety of connected devices that will allow content to include "live" elements that update and evolve.
Who will oversee this editorial process? Publishers, it's your responsibility, and it's a natural extension of your traditional role as a keeper of quality and voice. Editing content now continues postpublication. The book is changing. And as it changes, readers will look to trusted sources as their primary source of material. Publishers are in a prime position to take the lead here, eclipsing blogs and Web sites with added value and editorial excellence. Can publishers embrace a new, living book? Some will; some won't.
My son, now a college English major, finds the idea of a book etched in linear text quaint. He finds Wikipedia, a journey that starts with a search query then takes him from link to link, a much more modern view of narrative. No beginning, no end—just a collection of always changing data and a mix of community editors to polish and correct it in near real time. He argues the community is the editor here. Perhaps. But I'd rather see publishers take the helm and charge a reasonable price for making editorial trustworthy.
I'm not finished watching the Web-centric view of publishing form itself with editorial guidance. One chapter at a time, if you don't mind. Books will evolve as both generations and technology arrive. And that isn't something publishing should be afraid of.
McGraw-Hill publishes Steven Rosenbaum's Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers Are Creators this month.