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Beyond Technology–How Culture Will Drive the Future of Publishing

Excerpt from Beyond Technology–How Culture Will Drive the Future of Publishing

© Martin Wilcox


We often hear that some comment or incident has been taken out of context and consequently misunderstood. You would think that such repeated acknowledgements of the importance of seeing things in their larger settings would encourage us to do better. Yet many, if not most, of the topics we talk passionately about today are taken out of context. Unfortunately, publishing is no exception.

So let’s take a contextual look at publishing—or at that aspect of it that has been concerned with text, especially in books.

It’s a challenge to take such a view because publishing is in the midst of great changes, making it hard to see beyond immediate concerns. Thus, the discussions that are now raging around publishing focus primarily on the advances in the technology of distribution (Will print books disappear? Should publications be done as apps?), with some corollary discussions around other technological issues (What is the best software for production? How can social media contribute to the development of manuscripts? How is digitization driving self-publishing as a new business model?). It is often asserted that nobody really knows where it is going.

And that’s true. There have been impressive digital advances in recent years and what production and distribution will look like even in the near future is not clear. But this view is incomplete, lacking context and often neglecting important aspects of publishing. A more complete picture would allow us to better anticipate where publishing is headed, get in front of it, gain more control, and find ways to make change work to our advantage. Furthermore, we can take some comfort in the fact that the context itself is constant and not changing.

The overview is this: The context of publishing is knowledge, and the context of knowledge is culture.

Culture, Knowledge, and Publishing

Culture has been defined in a myriad of ways. Rather than trying to define it by describing its specific manifestations, such as beliefs, values, goals, and practices, I prefer a functional definition: Culture is the systematic way that we humans test, adapt, preserve, and pass on what we learn from our collective experience. It is the dynamic container of our shared knowledge.

Of all the cultural activities that relate to knowledge, publishing has become one of the more prominent. Whether as a contribution to a scholarly discipline as in academic publishing, as part of an exchange of expert ideas about how to conduct work as in professional publishing, as a guide to a practical task as in specialty publishing, or as an entertainment as in trade publishing, it provides knowledge for a defined purpose to a specific audience.

There is a range of knowledge processes that support publishing—for instance, scanning the environment, using empirical methods to evaluate validity and truth, perspective-taking, collaboration, and popularization. The first three examples are important but not always present; the last two are always at work and essential.

Collaboration is a process in which two or more people work together to understand and accomplish a common purpose. It is a knowledge process because collaborating inevitably requires people to refer to and pass along what they know. In an organizational setting, collaboration has only recently been recognized as important—often distinguished from teamwork, which has received much more attention, because the latter typically involves people in a formal work group, or in formally recognized roles, whereas the former involves people who aren’t members of the same formal group work. Thus, it commonly necessitates working across a variety of boundaries (vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic). In a general setting, where formal groups are the exception, collaboration is much more prominent. In publishing it is how things get done.