The Context and Purpose of Publishing

© Martin Wilcox

          There is a lot of talk today about how publishing should change. People say it should alter its business plan; put out more, or perhaps only, digital products; promote open-access or self-publishing; and more. This discussion, which focuses largely on technical and technological issues, needs to take place, but it has become so passionate that it has diverted us from another, at least equally important, discussion: how publishing should not change.

In order to talk about that we need to pay attention to the context, and through that the purpose, of publishing.

Although it is seldom discussed, the context of publishing is knowledge, and the context of knowledge is culture.

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 workgroup, 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.

Popularization is the means by which expert knowledge is made available to a succession of ever-wider, more general audiences that can make use of it. Because expert knowledge is everywhere, it can begin anywhere—in an academic discipline, in an ongoing practical activity, or in an association of shared interests, or wherever these may intersect, to name a few. And there are many degrees of popularization—beginning with a very small amount, where, for instance, an expert informs his or her peers about something he’s learned; to somewhat a slightly greater amount, where the expert informs experts in closely related fields; to a very great amount, where an expert portrays his or her knowledge to a largely lay audience. For each degree, the audience must be considered and knowledge must be transformed.

Golden Leaves Floating Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Golden Leaves Floating
Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Given its context, the purpose of publishing becomes obvious: to contribute to the sharing of knowledge. Thus, the cultural and social aspects of knowledge use and dissemination, especially the essential processes of collaboration and popularization, are central to our understanding of what is happening in publishing and how we should move forward.

In addition, we need to acknowledge that publishing has six interrelated but distinct stages: knowledge verification, content development, publication development, production, marketing and promotion, and sales and distribution. On occasion, there can be some overlap, often resulting in confusing one stage with another. Each of these contributes to its purpose.

  1. Knowledge Verification. Publishing must begin with a commitment to contribute in some way to shared knowledge. To follow through on this commitment, it is necessary to judiciously consider the value and quality of the knowledge that is being added. It can come from a scholarly or a practical field; it can be held individually or organizationally.
  2. Content Development. Content development is a large part of the popularization that publishing organizations do. Thus it is the means by which expert knowledge is transformed into something that can more readily be understood and used by people throughout society. Within any knowledge field, a great deal of effort is expended to make it internally consistent and expandable (that is, something that can be contributed to). This is accomplished in many ways but especially through a precise and detailed terminology and, closely related, through organizing concepts. Except for the community of experts in the field, the terminology and expert concepts cannot merely be passed on to a more general audience. Content development develops a terminology that is accessible to a wider audience and is relevant to its needs, and finds more understandable organizing concepts. It can be understood as turning knowledge into content.
  3. Publication Development. This was once essentially book development, but now it involves developing different kinds of products. But the book is not dead, and furthermore it needs to be understood that in many cases when we talk about the book what we are really referring to is text: language that is put into a fixed form in various ways, the most prominent way historically being written (and then printed). This text, language in fixed form, is an important type of technology, which was developed in the course of the cultural activities of preserving and sharing useful knowledge. Publishing is essentially about content in textual form to create products that serve cultural needs.
  4. Production. Production is the stage in which collaboration and popularization are essential—with editing producing an understandable and useful text, and design and layout creating a presentation that is efficient and accessible—assuring that the product is effective at sharing the content in the developed text.
  5. Marketing and Promotion. The purpose of both marketing and promotion in publishing is to let an audience know that a publisher has some content that the audience needs and can use. It is not to create a need that doesn’t already exist, although sometimes an audience may not be aware that it needs something. Marketing aims to inspire an immediate, or not-too-distant, purchase. Promotion, on the other hand, informs people about a publication and aims to set the stage for an eventual purchase. Both are key to the effective sharing of content.
  6. Sales and Distribution. This is a part of publishing that is much discussed and changing. In the midst of this, we must make sure that sales and distribution are driven in large part by the knowledge requirements of people, by what they need to understand and do, and not exclusively by technological considerations.

What should stay the same for publishing, despite the innovations of new business models and technological capacities, should be the context it operates in and the purpose it fulfills. Collaboration, popularization, and the six stages of the publication process must continue. These can be done in different ways by new combinations of people and resources, but if publishing is to continue its contribution to society, they must endure.

Publishing in Context