The Future of Publishing

‘It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.’ (Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’,

The future of publishing will depend on a number of innovations and issues that seek to experiment and converge various forms of media. Digital and networked media will have a crucial role in shaping the publishing industry, which in itself will become a broader industry encompassing the structure of the internet. These main factors that embody digitisation will include creative commons, the relationship between tangible and digital technologies and the networked structure of editing and archiving content. Just as Clay Shirky (2009) writes about the importance of generating multiple ‘experiments’ in order to find alternative forms of publishing, the publishing industry of the future will need to be aware of these different factors and their ability to appeal to diverse and niche publics. Therefore despite these technological advancements, challenges for the publishing industry will exist through copyright, the relationships between various publics and how the reliability of information can be verified in a fast-paced digital environment. By analysing the main concepts that will drive publishing into the future with relevant examples, this will highlight Shirky’s claim that the success of the publishing industry will depend on multiple variables and the ability for publishing to adapt to a more experimental approach.


By definition, ‘to publish’ means to make a work “generally known”. Publishing revolves around the notion of a ‘public’; a collective of people that can exist in any size or space in time. In this sense, the ‘commons’ is an appropriate description of how publishing functions and the broader legal attitudes society has towards copyright and the sharing of information. Traditionally, there has always been tension regarding shared resources. The moral of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as written by Garrett Hardin (1968), states that because ‘the commons’ was owned by everyone, no one took any responsibility. By enforcing ownership regulations, individuals would resume more responsibility for their property and economic transactions would be clearer defined.

Despite, the historical decline towards ‘the commons’, with the internet this again has become a prevalent issue, particularly with the digitisation of publishable material and the ability for a networked society to make information widely available. Copyright laws originally served under the ethos that the ‘community own knowledge’ and the author is only granted temporary rights and income for their creations; in most cases this is for the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years (Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2015). As Barlow (1994) writes copyright is beneficial mostly to the producer and distributor of content, as they can control where the material goes. As society is still transitioning to the open access platform of the internet, courts continue to favour existing copyright holders when ownership of digital material becomes contentious (McIlroy, 2013). Digital Rights Management (DRM) has also arisen as copyright’s response to the produsage culture of the internet with software specifically designed to prevent content from hackers (McIlroy, 2013). This can be seen as a direct deterrence from open source software and the remix culture of the internet.

Based on this brief description of the issues surrounding copyright, “creative commons” has evolved as a response to the internet’s concerns with copyright. Lessing (2007) refers to this as the ‘read/write commons’. In this sense, the creative commons exists specifically for the digital age with the realisation that creators want credit for their work but at the same time allowing their content to be appropriated and constantly adapted. The creative commons site refers to their model as a move “from all rights reserved to some rights reserved” ( Creators have the ability to choose which license suits their needs ranging from commercial, derivative and non-commercial. Nonetheless, ‘creative commons’ does not situate itself as an alternative to copyright rather working ‘alongside copyright’. Creative commons is the infrastructure in which users can obtain their license however as the site clearly states ‘users build the commons itself’ through the sharing and attribution of work (Creative Commons site, 2015).

With increased focused on ‘creative commons’ the publishing of the future will be directly affected by networked structures. Tim Berners-Lee (2015), the founder of the internet and the W3 organisation writes about the creation of a “Semantic Web” where HTML will not become the dominate code, but instead the web will exist of linked data, that can be understood directly by the computer. Carroll (2006) refers to this idea as a ‘policy-aware Web’ that will make metadata even more valuable (p.62). An example of the ‘Semantic Web’ already in effect would be the ‘machine-readable law’ of the ‘creative commons’, as attribution licenses are automatically detected (Carroll, 2006, p.62) .

A critic of this theory is Clay Shirky, who argues that data is in the ‘user not the machine’ and that RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and social tagging better reflect the future direction of digital publishing (Carroll, 2006, p.63). Sites such as Flickr use tagging in order to organise their data and also generate content based on creative commons licenses. Whether publishing will exist through the ‘Semantic Web’ or the simpler concept of social tagging, these ideas still reveal the importance of metadata and the commons in shaping how information is used and distributed.


Linked with the notion of networked structures and creative commons is the idea that content will not be static but constantly edited and reshaped by multiple networks of users. The P2P Foundation (2015) embodies these ideas by creating a ‘wiki structure’ that promotes ‘peer-to-peer dynamics’ through open-sourced software, hacker-maker spaces and other initiatives that develop shared economies of resources. ‘Creative Commons’ and ‘Wikipedia’ are two examples of organisations that belong to the P2P Foundation and are transforming how content is generated and re-used.

Wikipedia, is the most prominent example of how a collaborative, networked structured encyclopaedia can become a major creator and aggregator of information. Wikipedia articles can be edited by anonymous users and the majority of Wikimedia content exists under the public domain. The wiki model provides an insight on how collaborative writing and editing can generate a lot of information in a relativity short time span.

Black (2008) proposes the Wikipedia model as a future alternative for the academic peer-review process. This theory is interesting as it challenges the traditional hierarchical nature of academic publishing and instead states that the peer-review model cannot keep pace with the fast development of new ideas (Black, 2008, p.74). A wiki structure would facilitate this rapid diffusion of ideas within a free and open environment, without credential bias. This is a controversial idea as Wikipedia is often criticised for its lack of reliable information and anonymous writers however as Black (2008) argues a collaborative network can very quickly transform into a reliable stream of information through a democratic approach to collating information.

A similar publishing platform to Wikipedia is ‘Citizdenium’ ( a wiki-structure that mirrors Wikipedia however it is open to an expert review by editors and collaborators. All contributors to articles must provide their real name, thus creating a sense of responsibility. This type of publishing platform reveals a solution to the variability problems of Wikipedia and creates a compromise between the peer-review process and networked structures. Therefore, Citizdenium reveals a future direction publishing is heading towards where information can be delivered fast but also accurately through a collaborative model.

When considering the digital archiving of information, sites such as Wikipedia also reveal the tensions between static information and constant updating. An interesting feature of Wikipedia is the option to ‘create a book’ in either a physical format or as a PDF. This serves as a form of archive, where information suddenly becomes static. Although not a frequently used option, this type of archiving appeals to a niche audience, allowing anyone to aggregate and remix information for their own perusal.

Conversely, digital information cannot always be printed out and remain a reliable source. Metadata and social tagging have become increasingly significant in categorising information and tracked changes. Sites such as the Internet Archive’s ‘WayBack Machine’ show a snapshot of a webpage from the past. This is a more interactive form of archiving, where the user can select the specific data they need. The Internet Archive’s main site is also divided into collections of various forms of media and are searchable via creative commons licensing. This type of metadata is shaping how content is viewed and stored. In a society where archiving is prominent ranging from the hashtag to Facebook timeline, the publishing industry must accommodate these forms of metadata in order to create engaging forms of archiving for the future.

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The final concept that will influence publishing in the future is the economy of attention and how publishing technologies will embody interactive forms in order to capture a readership. The ‘attention economy’ refers to the displacement of commodities, with focus redirected towards social collectivity. Goldhaber (1997) defines ‘attention’ as the new ‘cyberspace economy’ as the public competes for attention in a data-saturated world wide web. As a result, publishing formats must complete with vast amounts of data and shorter time spans, as people filter out what they want to see or read.

With the rise of technologies such as the Amazon Kindle e-book reader, the way in which readers are interacting with written content is changing. The ebook represents a new mode of archiving and distribution, where the user can bookmark pages and view hyperlinked content. Although the ebook is often discussed in competition with the printed book, as Carreino (2010) argues ebooks can be seen as a ‘supplementary option’ rather than as a replacement for the printed book. Traditional publishing houses must still be engaged in the process of ‘e-publishing’ which incorporates a wider spectrum of digital issues such as delivery and content, rather than just the device itself. Despite, the popularity of ebooks in recent times (Kindle in 2007 and the ipad in 2010) as McIlroy (2011) and Kostick (2011) discuss, ebooks have failed to make an impact in more visual forms of publishing such as children’s books and textbooks. McIlroy (2011) elaborates that ebooks at the moment are only suited to ‘text’ and devices such as the Kindle still have problems when it comes to formatting and adding images.

Other challenges exist as ebook readers do not have a standardised file format. Amazon currently dominates the ebook industry and has deviated from the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) coding traditionally used for all published books to its own ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Numbers) coding. As previously mentioned, DRM is also a contentious issue which in many cases prevents content appearing across a range of platforms. As Carreiro (2010) statess the publishing industry is ‘no longer developing a book’ but instead ‘they’re authoring content’ (p.10). In this sense, authors must be willing to distribute their work across a range of platforms and dynamic states of media. Thus, the example of the ebook shows another way in which publishing content can be analysed through modes of reader interactivity and distribution.

Digital magazines in similarity to the ebook, provide an example of how interactive content can be generated for specific publics or niche markets. Silva (2012) writes about the evolution of the digital magazine from scanned PDF pages to now being defined as a magazine which must exist specifically for a digital platform and contain at least some elements of interactivity. According to Silva, digital magazines will make up 75% of the periodicals market by 2022 (Silva, 2012, p.1). Digital magazines represent an easier and cheaper form of distribution, as well as being connected and hyperlinked to social media platforms. A specific example of a successful digital magazine is ‘iFly magazine’ ( owned by the Royal Dutch Airlines. Through simple but captivating travel photography, written content is kept to a single caption and pages can be shared via social media. These simple forms of interactivity help engage the user quickly and provide information efficiently. Although the internet is often thought of as a large public, the ability to generate content cheaply has rather resulted in a range of smaller markets, appealing to niche audiences. Thus, this type of environment is integral to digital magazines that can focus more so on niche markets.

Another example of interactive digital publishing is “The Virtual Window Interactive” created by Anne Friedberg and Erik Loyer (2007). This work is an interesting example of a collaboration between academic theory and interactive design. Based on Friedberg’s printed book about the how the world is framed by screens and windows of moving images, the works evolution into a digital platform transforms these theories into an interactive simulation of ‘apertures, content and avatar-viewers’ (Author introduction, Friedberg, 2007). Therefore the concept is directly linked with the form.

These types of digital platforms reveal a further trend towards the integration between content and suitable technologies. A development which will characterise the publishing of the future is the idea of tangible technologies that nonetheless still embody digital qualities. On a simpler level the start of this trend has been revealed by devices like the Kindle by removing backlighting and focusing on a single-use device. However as Kostick (2011) remarks the ‘maker movement’ which is a combination of DIY philosophies and technology is seeking to create platforms which integrate digital formats with the sensory qualities of printed books that people enjoy. A recent example towards this idea is the creation by Sony of ‘Digital paper’ that has the flexible qualities and lightness of paper, but works like an ebook which can be edited and written on (Lawler, 2014). Although these technologies sound exciting, Kostick (2011) questions whether these ‘maker books’ have really become ‘ebooks’ yet, as they remain expensive and exist mainly as academic experiments at the moment. Despite this, these experiments do reveal the experimental nature of publishing at present, where creators seek to build bridges between content, technology and user experience.

Overall, the future of publishing has been discussed from the perspective of three main concepts that will influence how the industry evolves; the creative commons, archiving and user interactivity. Digital and networked media have dismantled aspects of the traditional publishing industry however publishing is adapting to more hybrid forms where the qualities that people enjoy about printed media are combined with networked structures and editable content. Ultimately, despite the complexities that future publishing faces with expenses, legal and social concerns, by experimenting with new formats and niche publics this will generate a series of formats that can be trialed and tested as a response to the relatively short time span in which the internet and digital media has evolved.

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Image Credits:

Interactive design tool:
Wikipedia and Wayback machine screenshots:*/
Creative Commons — Giulio Zannol ‘Street Creative Commons’:
Creative Commons — DonkeyHotey ‘Blank Open Book — Illustration’:
Public Domain — Internet Archive: “Image from page 94 of “Modern book-bindings & their designers” (1900)
Public Domain — Internet Archive: “Image from page 90 of “Modern book-bindings & their designers” (1900)
Public Domain — The Library of Congress: “The common, Tunbridge Wells, England” (1890)
Public Domain — Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine: “Library Bookshelf”
Public Domain — “Universitetsbiblioteket 1850–1913 : søndre del av langsalen til Fredriksgate”

All images were appropriated/remixed.

The Future of Publishing by Olivia Inwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.