Bob Stein, “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era:” Readers, Community, and the Future of the Book

Just as think-pieces on “what is the definition of digital humanities” have proliferated in recent years, textual scholars are increasingly invested in the question of “what is the future of the book.” A final paragraph on the possibilities of digital textuality is now almost ubiquitous in books and articles on the topic, which is productive and necessary, but can often feel like a gesture towards a topic–the book in the digital age–that in fact deserves a deeper dive.

To that end, I appreciate the format of Bob Stein’s “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era” for its transparency–bullet points suggest ideas-in-progress, steps to be debated, questions ready for answers. The robust comments section, too, suggests the very communities of readers that Stein believes are the key to understanding potential forms of publication in a networked age

For Stein, the networked era requires a shift in consciousness from bibliographic, or physical forms of books to practices of readership, or as he states, “how [books] are used” (1). In his list of key questions, he asks how we might “account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network,” and goes on to consider ways to engage readers with the author’s conclusions at a deeper, more satisfying level” (2). Ultimately, his answer rests in the idea of communities of readers and authors that exist in a publishing business model. He suggests “a new formulation might be that publishers and editors contribute to building a community that involves an author and a group of readers who are exploring a subject” (4)

In the comments section, Michael Jensen wonders about the time aspect of the in-depth reader-meet-author, communities of reading that Stein suggests, noting that “most of us simply have too little time to really investigate/explore/expand out” to participate and read in the way that Stein describes. With this, I wonder, what other facets of a community of readers might we examine to determine a better way of producing sustained engagement? Should we be looking at reading practices, but also what readers do generally as embodied beings with obligations, lives, schedules?

Thinking also of the balance between readership and physical form, Stein’s vision of the future indicates that “novels will not continue to be the dominant form of fiction” but rather, participatory games will based on their narrative capacities (5). In considering the futures of the book, it stands that Stein’s turn from content or appearance towards reading practices also suggests that we should look to other non-book forms that are “read.” Of this idea, I might ask, what other media, beyond games, shed light on narrative and reading practices today?

I was surprised (and okay, a little excited!) to see Cory Doctorow, of #ITPCore1 syllabus fame, in the comments, too. He points out moments in Stein’s argument that fall prey to what he terms the “futurismic fallacy,” and states that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so.” I have been thinking about that phrase since I read it. I’ve found that in articles and books on the future of publishing and the potential of hypertext, that authors will readily list off statements about what technology might be able to do in the future–as Vannevar Bush illustrates, this is ultimately productive–but these anticipations often feel impossible since they are not well scaffolded onto our current technologies of reading. In short, it can feel like chasms between Point A and B. But the idea that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so” calls for a re-examination of what exactly constitutes reading practice in our current moment–and the answer to this will be the basis upon which we can envision the types of new forms that books and reading will take. So, what does characterize reading and books today, and how might we distill these characteristics into principles for future publishing?

5 thoughts on “Bob Stein, “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era:” Readers, Community, and the Future of the Book

  1. Achim Koh

    Thanks for the posting!

    I liked the comment on Stein by Kim White, pointing to what could be called a form of distant reading and characterizing it as “Sifting through a pile of junk and trying to make a story out of it.” It almost feels like a description of any academic research, metadata or not (don’t mean disrespect for our readings, though!).

    “Dynamic comment fields enable classes to have their unique editions, where a lively conversation can take place in the margins.”
    This overlapped a lot with what I’ve been thinking about seminar discussions and ways to archive them. As Teresa noted, the plugin used in the Blog-Based Peer Review seems to have had such a functionality—which is also a feature of the new Social Paper of Academic Commons.

    I am a bit ambivalent on the idea of a business model where one buys access to the community, though. On the one hand, the model seems consistent to the idea that the networked discussion is also content, constituting a part of the “continuously evolving text.” Controlled access could also have other positive effects like reduced trolling. However, there is something about the notion of paywall for community access that rubs me the wrong way… But maybe I’m romanticizing the democratic vision of the internet.

    In terms of the question of “what other media, beyond games, shed light on narrative and reading practices today?”, I feel that besides online games as a model of networked participatory publishing one could look at the data analysis conducted by streaming services like Netflix. Especially, looking at user data in order to go beyond building recommendation systems into deciding actual investment in content:
    Book publishing must have a different dynamics from TV production in terms of investment, but still I wonder to what degree do publishers employ empirical data when signing a contract.

  2. Robert P. Robinson (he/him/his)

    Adding to Teresa’s comment about communities (and speaking to the question of narrative/reading practices), I think we are seeing a small subsection of the online community engaging in reader communities. I like how Stein discusses the possibilities of organic, communal fiction. I think he is opening the door to an integrated fan fiction, which is much cooler than the rather divorced fan fiction sites of today. Imagine how cool it would be to geek out with J.K. Rowling in a Harry Potter sequel.

  3. Anna Alexis Larsson

    Thanks, Theresa, for your thoughts on Social Media and microcommunities. I was intrigued when Kathleen Fitzpatrick challenged readers to consider the development/history of the MP3 format in relation to MySpace instead of on its own. It does seem like technologies can’t be isolated from their uptake in communities that see a use for them, and I suspect that some of those uses might not be those intended by the tech’s designers. Fitzpatrick and Bob Stein each take an interest in the social context of technologies like printed books and digital publishing formats, and each challenge us to revisit our expectations of what an author is or does. But I think the discussion of readers and reader practices is still both underdeveloped and a little too preoccupied with the web. I appreciate Fitzpatrick’s emphasis on the importance of the “coffee-house model of public reading and debate,” and I think libraries could create space for this where perhaps actual coffee houses no longer exist or work on the same model. It seems like online public spaces are proliferating, if perhaps imperfectly, but they’d never be perfectly analogous to the physical public spaces that, it seems to me, are greatly changed and perhaps diminished. I’m inspired by readings at galleries, bookstores, and libraries, and by the way sites like cold front magazine function as an organizing node and information clearinghouse in the service of locavore reader communities.

    And what about audiobooks? The APA ( reports significant increases in audiobook sales each year. Are we witnessing a revival of the culture of “listening in” that supported so much poetry and diminished greatly with the waning of the centrality of church sermons? I just finished a 25+ hour book, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which I “read” while involved in one of three activities: kitchen work, dog walks, and my commute by bus and train to Queens College. At various moments of extremely beautiful narration I found myself welling up among strangers. The organization librivox, an audio analogue to Project Gutenberg, enlists countless volunteers to upload recordings of books incrementally. The system, I admit, is limited–some recordings are hard to hear at full volume, and it’s impossible to adjust the speed–but it’s a promising alternative to big business audio publishers. In the future, I hope to see a model of audio publishing that enables people to listen to more theory and experimental fiction by women, and I’d like to see more self- and independent- publishing possibilities proliferate in the audio world.

  4. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    I love all of these questions!

    So, what does characterize reading and books today, and how might we distill these characteristics into principles for future publishing?

    Reading Stein this week, I came to the realization that authorship and reading is converging on what we’ve traditionally thought of as teaching and learning. He uses the analogy of the seminar, where the professor (author) probably knows more about the topic than his/her students, but the students (readers) have a good deal to add, and together, the goal is “to synthesize and extend knowledge.” By engaging a community in discussion about text in a digital forum, publishing platforms become LMSes — the best kind of MOOC, where knowledge is made, instead of simply absorbed. This kind of lens is destabilizing to the publishing industry today, which, as Fitzpatrick writes, views scholarship as “something that we must undertake — and be evaluated on — alone” (2011). I agree with her that peer review and the other processes behind book publishing need an overhaul. There is much to be ironed out about how a new open networks paradigm for publishing would work: giving people credit for their reviews pay-for-play-style? reviewing reviewers? ensuring new networks avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors? (some, apparently, didn’t do enough work to build up a user base and a rationale for use before launching). But I appreciated Fitzpatrick’s point that the model the academy has always used isn’t doing anyone any good either, so we can only get better from here. And perhaps using teaching and learning as a lens won’t be so far a leap for academics.

    I wonder, what other facets of a community of readers might we examine to determine a better way of producing sustained engagement?

    I’m thinking about where I’ve done the most active reading lately: Aside for all the work I do for courses, a good deal of my engagement with text happens on Facebook and its tangents. Perhaps I do more passive skimming and scrolling, which doesn’t seem as engaged as the practices of the five year old in the example cited by Stein, but there is something to be said for the way that method of reading enables real unpacking of bite-sized chunks of content about a variety of issues. Of course, all of the academics in a given realm might follow each other on Twitter, but how might micro-reading, review, and response get folded into publishing?

    Should we be looking at reading practices, but also what readers do generally as embodied beings with obligations, lives, schedules?

    I don’t know if I have any answers for you here, but I was glad that these readings were so concerned with the practical elements of new imagined publishing systems: how will people get compensated for the labor they do as reviewers? Why would people join a social network or online publishing community if they know it doesn’t “count” for career advancement? And if they did, would participation become reduced to simple metrics, which then might “overtake more nuanced understandings of significance?” (Fitzpatrick 2011, citing Waters 2004). Benkler has of course shown us how widespread non-market practices are in digital space, but academics are already overburdened. While broadband and server space seem unlimited, time and money are not.

    1. Teresa Ober

      Mary Catherine,

      These are some great insights in regards to the reading! It seems that there has always been a question of readership when it comes to publishing, regardless of the medium, so much so that when producing a written work, we might at some point be forced to consider the intended audience. For this reason, the question of “how books are to be use” seems to be mostly the same despite the medium in which the written works are produce; whether in a physical book or in an online, electronic form. Undoubtedly, as you mention quoting Stein, publishers contribute and exert some control over this readership, but is it possible a community of readers, writers, and editors could have a similar effect in shaping the context and discourse surrounding a written work? In a digital network, we are afforded a virtual environment, such as the blog-based project described by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, which readers can be use to engage with the text by leaving comments. In his blog-based project, Grad Text Auto, Wardip-Fruin attempts to maximize the potential of online communities of readers by using paragraph-level editing, emphasizing conversation around a topic over a period of time, and an exiting context and community of readers. As he points out, having such a community of readers in place can alleviate some of the “blindness” associated with formal publishing, particularly in terms of reviewer’s commentary.

      In a similar way that blogs provide a community of “readers,” so, too, do online games and social media. Social media itself creates micro-communities of readers who follows similar stores or share similar interests. The adaptable and person-specific nature of social media definitely makes it both appealing and impactful in terms of shaping reader practices today. However, whether social media is an effective tool for shaping an extended response to a composition of writing, and whether it can be sued more effectively than traditional reviewer-based approaches still seems like a question unanswered.

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