Page against the machine 2 – a sledgehammer without a nut

In my previous post, I suggested that some multifactorial analysis of previous technological innovations would suggest what is going to happen when publishing companies bang up against the digital content agenda driven by the powerful US techno-behemoths. ‘Multifactorial’ here simply means that we pay attention to the many factors of our humanity that make us behave the way we do.

My first case study looked at the CD-ROM debacle, which is now gone, completely done and dusted. The second is still very much live; my guess though is that within 10 years it will seem old-fashioned and irrelevant. OK, this is a pretty safe bet, because everything from the current world of digital media will, in 10 years’ time, look like an antique. Only the codex (a paper book with pages, not a scroll) will look timeless and authoritative …

More important than mere longevity, the implementation of my second case study in publishing raises issues (among others) of organizational cultures and managerial models of understanding. These issues, though subtle and fugitive, are powerful and formative. Companies and industries ignore them at their peril; they are affecting how publishers make decisions about how to make e-books and develop new digital products.

Case study 2: XML. Extensible Markup Language has always been a strange animal, at least for the traditional publishing industry, a solution in search of a problem, a sledgehammer without a nut. I am not decrying the usefulness of XML as a standard for the interchange of data based on the enormous (but could it ever be complete?) Unicode character set. It is excellent for structuring data into small and manageable parts within a clear overarching hierarchy of formal elements. For example, if you were going to produce a technical manual for servicing a jumbo jet, you might want to divide it up for different teams to write, update, translate and use; I imagine XML would be a very sensible choice. But here I am simply asking publishers: what, in your business, is it for?

A few books, particularly reference, need it, or its equivalents. But in practice, most XML implementations I have come across induce a shiny far-off evangelistic gleam in the eyes of the people making it happen. In my view XML is what Foucault called a ‘totalizing discourse’ or, to paraphrase the title of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s superb short story, a ‘dream of the absolute’. It is a search for a kind of perfection that is chimerical, illusory. In Foucault’s sense it is also a totalitarian project, where the rhetoric of the solution overwhelms or drives out the expressiveness, usefulness or indeed humanity of what is being solved. In this sense it is like the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo (itself a fine example of hubristic megalomania) that depicts the hauling, as part of a plan to found an opera house there, of a 300-ton ship up a steep hill in the Amazon rainforest.

The fantastical nature of the XML project is similar. Cambridge University Press has for some years adopted an ‘XML first’ workflow policy for all of its books. Why? Is David McKitterick’s luminous Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order, 1450–1830 going to have its content repurposed as an app? Are CUP going to bring it out for Christmas as an enhanced e-book? People certainly want to buy e-book editions, but you don’t need to go to XML for this. Shocking though it is for the technocrats in the publishing industry who have trumpeted XML as the only futureproof vehicle for content, Google has been demonstrating for some years that books that have never gone near any kind of digital workflow are all already completely and accurately digitized and searchable – for free. Like Alice in Wonderland (chapter 2), publishers need to be very careful indeed that the crocodilian Google ‘cheerfully … seems to grin … / And welcomes little fishes in / With gently smiling jaws!’, but we know what is possible.

Unfortunately the fallout from the XML project, like a technocratic Chernobyl, has damaged the culture of the companies who pursue it in a totalizing way. Unfortunately, too, the damage is invisible. What is the damage? Perhaps it only reflects damage that is already there. This kind of damage, by the way, may only be our very human characteristic of self-deception, seeing what we want to see. There is no cure – but we can try. If we can see a pattern here we can fine-tune predictions of how publishers (and markets) will respond to the current e-book frenzy.

1 Publishing is a people-based industry. It is based, at root, on what matters to people. Some publishers have succeeded simply because they have somehow channelled the spirit of the age – Katie Price, of course, as well as Oswald Spengler. Unlike the furniture industry, for example, the publishing product line (the codex) is in essence very simple and rarely drives decisions to buy for physical or mechanical reasons alone one type of codex or another. Collectors and bibliophiles love beautiful editions for their high-quality production or design values; different formats (sizes and bindings and pricings) announce quietly but firmly the genre of book and the kind of people to whom it is being published. But mediocre typesetting or printing doesn’t stop some books from tiny publishers having huge success – I’m thinking of Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher, originally published by Blond and Briggs in 1973. And the merely adequate production values of, for example, the Harry Potter series have been a necessary but hardly sufficient reason for its success. The totalitarian XML project is concerned with the opposite: the pursuit of a technical perfection, the beautiful machine for its own sake. It is a means, but not to the ends we think of as publishing. It is a classic management misjudgement: because you now can doesn’t mean you now should.

2 The previously dominant editorial values of the book industry has been undercut both by the shift to the money culture arising from ownership by the corporates and by a wider post-1980 consensus of the primacy of economics as the master discipline – as if ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was the Alpha and Omega of political wisdom and not in fact boorish crassness. In a previous post I tried to suggest how a subtle and improvisatory culture fares badly when exposed to the language of corporate moneyspeak – the dreaded mystical and reductive incantation of ‘the bottom line’. This is a cultural juju even more fetishized than the poor old book form that Derrida was having a pop at in my previous post. I am not saying that financial prudence is bad; I am saying, along with Einstein, that ‘not everything that counts can be counted’. More heretically, I assert that some brands or products – and I include those of book publishers – will have more value because they are manifestly and credibly non- or even a-commercial. I say ‘credibly’ because one thing consumers hate more than straightforward commercial exploitation is deception and trickery.

3 Following the Penguin paperback innovation in 1935, for over 70 years the comparative stability of publishing formats and routes to market has fostered the baroque elaboration of genres and nuances aimed at different market segments. For example, cover design meetings used to be show-downs between the editors (who have probably read the book), the design department (with the creative vision) and the sales department (with the market orientation). My experience has been that sales people have increasingly dictated or micro-specified the outcome, based on the supposition that their pre-judgements of consumer response trump editorial meaningfulness or design integrity. This logic is so dubious it can only reflect a deeper and unconscious negotiation of power relations in society as whole. The XML project similarly reflects changes in relative departmental power. In a wider context there is collective terror in publishing companies at rapid technological change driven by corporate behemoths who are oblivious or even hostile to the traditional publishers’ money-for-content model. The technical expertise of the production department – which is usually modest enough, but in the publishing company of the technologically blind the one-eyed person is monarch – here gets its chance to enjoy some power. XML implementations of course have a tokenistic bolted-on marketing focus after the event, but note the same management/decision-making structures, left untouched. Note too the same one-way flow of content, author>>publisher>>reader, although the paradigm-shifting, mould-breaking power of the internet is the near-instantaneous communication that goes two ways.

[to be continued]


About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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