Convert or engage

The ebook debate is locked into dichotomies of past versus present, dynamic versus fixed; split into factions, when all that matters is engagement, both with the readers and your colleagues.

On my way to work this morning, munching a croissant as I walked through Reykjavík city centre1, I thought about Joseph Esposito’s post on the role of dynamic versus fixed publishing in scholarly publishing.

It’s a thing I do when I walk: leisurely ponder stuff I’ve read recently.

My thoughts started off on a simple tangent, a straightforward position that’s getting to be a personal cliche of mine. Namely, even though Joseph explicitly refers to the dynamic and fixed concepts as a continuum, he goes on to treat it like a dichotomy.

Everybody seems to fall into this trap, they know—intellectually—that it is a continuum, or a spectrum, but they all go on to talk as if fixed represents the past, and dynamic the future, never the twain shall meet.

This simply isn’t true. If you go outside of the confines of mainstream publishing you’ll find dynamic, conversational, publishing everywhere: Comics, games, local publishing, indie magazines, fanzines, small press, small newspapers. Dynamic publishing, where the readers take an active role in shaping the output, outnumbers fixed mainstream publishers and has done so for a long long time. Mainstream publishers have more revenue, but that’s more due to the occasional blockbuster than a characteristic of standard practice.

This is without wandering outside of the myopic realm of English-language publishing. Cultures vary, and many national publishing industries are profoundly different—and more dynamic—than what the British and North Americans are used to.

But those aren’t the same, they aren’t real publishers.

Therein lies the rub. Many people in the mainstream publishing industry see themselves as all there is, and their way as all that has been done. What makes mainstream publishing ‘fixed’ is their worldview, and no technology can fix that.

You can see how far off course I am by now. This line of argument has precious little to do with Joseph’s blog post, since he is actively engaging in a debate. He’s proposing ideas, listing the pros and the cons, and, instead of presenting what he thinks is the one true answer drawn from the holy scripture of truth, he’s asking questions that don’t have easy answers and hoping people will discuss them.

By this time, I’m interrupted by a tourist who asks me for directions to the nearest bakery. I point her to a nice one that’s only a few metres further up Laugavegur, and, as I return to my march to work, I notice I’m not thinking about Joseph’s blog post at all, but Craig Mod’s, specifically his post ‘Post Artifact Books & Publishing’.

This is the point where all of my prior discussions on Craig’s post have turned into heated arguments.

Craig’s post is the epitome of the perspective that ‘all past practice is double-plus undynamic’, of the view of dynamic versus fixed as a dichotomy, of the idea that mainstream publishing practices are all that matters and all that needs to change. His post is also not an attempt at a debate. He might think so, but if it was, he’d make sure to reach out to those who ‘don’t believe’ by referring to earlier experiments, examples of dynamic publishing that precede the current ebook vogue. He’s certainly erudite enough to know of them, and it would be much more effective at reaching out to those in publishing who would like to keep their current processes, thankyewverymuch, than his current angle of attack. The way to get people to accept a new process is by pointing at antecedents, not by eloquently demonstrating with fancy designs that everything they know is obsolete.

You don’t make friends by calling them stupid, which is what ‘Post Artifact Books & Publishing’ effectively does.

I guess that’s okay, because that’s not what the post is for. That's not its purpose.

It isn’t an argument. It isn’t an entry in a debate, or an attempt at a dialogue. It’s a shibboleth.

It’s a way for the digerati, the ebook avant-garde, to identify themselves by linking to, pointing at, retweeting and +1ing a piece of text that outlines their worldview.

A shibboleth is not supposed to convert, it is supposed to exclude the heathens.

And Craig’s post does that very well.

Which is the thought I have in my head when I clock myself in at the office and take one last gulp of the orange juice I’ve been drinking on the way to work.


  1. It's the last day before I return home to the UK! Woohoo! ↩