Publishing Hybrids

One of the best parts of book production is that it’s a pretty intensive operation. Once a book going into typesetting, it tends to occupy all of my attention until layout is complete. In my experience, layout does not accommodate multitasking and any interruption (four-legged or otherwise) invariably leads to mistakes, delays, and problems. (And as someone who is not prone to be attentive to details, even the smallest interruption (like searching for a new album or fixing a little problem) can let an error slip into the final text.

In short, the attention required to layout and produce a book is, for me at least, delightfully un-modern, despite the fact that it usually involves sitting in front of a computer rather than setting movable type. This experience got me thinking (once again) about the modern publishing process as a distinctly hybrid process. This hybridity, at least for me, emerges both from my process and from the nature of publishing in a digital world. 

Here are three quick thoughts (before I have to put the final touches on a book!):

1. Publishing as Craft. My colleague down at the NDSU Press takes students in her publishing class to work with a series of letterpresses and movable type presses in Braddock, ND. The point of the trip, from what I gather, is to emphasize the craft aspects of publishing which stem from the deep integration of all aspects of book making from the moment a manuscript comes into our hands as publisher to the moment it leaves as a completed book. Of course, in practice, most publishers outsource various aspects of book making – from copy editing and review to layout and design – but generally this outsourcing happens internally with the publisher maintaining control over the process. 

With the re-emergence in small-scale publishing, like The Digital Press, the publisher – as an individual rather than as a corporate entity – takes on even greater control over the entire production process. Moreover, with digital publishing, even the most frequently outsources function of the publication process – printing – tends to be done in-house. In other words, digital work, despite its tendency to fragment processes into bite (byte!) sized entities also encourages the processes of publishing to be more smoothly integrated with, for example, editing, design, typesetting, and printing all taking place in the same digital environment (and often at the same workstation!). This kind of integration is typical to craft practice and challenges a view (that I myself have spouted) that digital practices tend toward dis-integration and the logic of the assembly line or the supply-chain.

2. Finding Focus. I’ve been playing with various little applications for my phone that encourage me to remain focused. I have a busy fall semester and my attention span, which is fragile in the best of circumstances, is doing me no favors (while I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve checked the football scores, responded to two emails, let the yellow dog in and out twice, had a brief conversation with my wife, and reflected on the absence of interesting “Explorer-type” watches from micro brands). While my writing process, which focuses on sentence level execution, tends to endure my scattered approach to life, integrated workflows like typesetting and layout suffer when I get distracted. (Just forwarded another email to colleague…)

For example, texts have flows. Each section of text has to work with every other section. Chapters start on odd number pages, so each section must have an odd number of pages. The first page of each chapter, should have the same design, which means that the most complicated chapter title and the least complicated chapter title must all work within one’s design parameters. Changing one chapter title, for example, requires that we change ALL the chapter titles. Changing one element of layout must extended to the entire book. A change in one section cascades through the entire production flow. Blank pages must be added or removed to make sure that the spread aligns with the binding (for tightly-perfect bound books, the inner gutters and margins must accommodate the binding) and that chapters begin on odd number pages. 

This process requires sustained attention because any change must be reproduced the same way throughout the book. Modern layout and production software does help streamline this process of course, but since every manuscript, section, and text will be slightly different, there is inevitably small adjustments that must be made by hand. For example, a text block might be extended a few millimeters to prevent an orphan line or a hyphenated word eliminated if it causes confusion or a strange rhythm in the text body.

All this requires focus because each change ripples through the entire manuscript. It is a distinctly un-modern kind of focus that reminds me a bit of archaeological work at the end of a field season when things must be done in a particular order to a particular deadline. Even the most efficient project likely finds that certain tasks must fall to the project directors who are responsible for the field season and its results. 

3. Digital and Print. The main project that I am working on right now is Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent and Patriotism in 21st Century America.  This is, on the one hand, an edited volume with over 20 individual contributions. On the other hand, Dr. Burin’s introduction runs to over 80 pages in the book and close to 20,000 words (without citations). This is a mini-monograph. 

Dr. Burin’s introduction also includes over 350 hyperlinks that stand in for footnotes or other citation systems. This is appropriate for the topic, Colin Kaepernick’s protests during NFL games and the subsequent events, that is being reported in the online, mass media and is still pretty lightly covered in traditional printed academic sources.  

Unfortunately, as I have discussed elsewhere, hyperlinks are a less than ideal mode of citation for academic work. First, they only work in online, digital contexts where the reader can click on the link and go to a resource. Second, they tend to be fragile even in a digital context and break down as media-makers disappear or social media accounts are deleted. Third, if the account is deleted or the webpage removed from the live internet, it becomes difficult to identify the author, context, or even topic of the reference from the hyperlink alone. Unlike a traditional citation that is both humanly and machine readable (ideally), hyperlinks send readers to a web address and may or may not offer much information on the nature of the destination. In this context, then, the publisher (and the author) becomes responsible for preserving both the link and the destination as much as is practical. 

For Dr. Burin’s book, we used Harvard’s to archive the online sources that he referenced in his article, and converted the 350+ hyperlinks to rather tidy links. To make these links available to reader both online and offline we added endnotes throughout his chapter and these endnotes included both the original hyperlink and the link (unless we felt pretty good about the nature of the original hyperlink (e.g. wikipedia pages or very well established publishers whose sites tend to be resistant to this kind of archiving (like the failing New York Times)). For the casual reader, the mass of endnotes at the end of the chapter are a dense and probably incomprehensible block of web addresses.

PBK Book Draft0 pdf 2018 09 24 06 28 41

But for anyone looking to dig deeper into Dr. Burin’s arguments or who finds a dead hyperlink in his text, this material is vital to keeping the academic infrastructure of the work alive.

The use of hyperlinks to web resources embraces the dynamism of the ephemeral web and allowed Dr. Burin to build an argument from sources that appear and change as quickly as the situation. The use of endnotes and allowed us to create the kind of stability that would give such a 21st-century work persistent value as an interpretation of a situation as it unfolded. 

Publishing as a kind of hybrid process involves a tremendous amount of stress and work over rather short periods of time and echoes the kind of ebb-and-flow of the premodern work week documented by E.P. Thompson in his famous “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (Past and Present 38 (1967)). Dr. Burin and I are already discussing a celebration (complete with craft beer, of course) at the conclusion of this hybrid project which will offer just the catharsis necessary for The Digital Press to gear up for the next book on the docket.  

Now, I have to get back to work!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s