Publishing Hyper(digital)text

How do you publish hypertext? Get a website and an FTP client. Simple questions beget simple answers after all.

While I think that simplicity should rule supperme I've been looking through a bunch of hypertext fiction projects on the internet (for an upcoming list for the series) and I can see why this media hasn't taken off in the way that we might have expected: most hypertext fiction looks dated from a design perspective, and although I think the writing is often quite good it's too gimmicky, which impedes the reading experience. At some point we'll have to make room for a rant about genre's and literary experimentalism, but for now I'll stick to two themes that are really important to the way I might think about hypertext publishing. The first is a separation of form and content (a la css and xml), and the second has to do with the way that the publishing model works in a digital age.

Form and Content

One of the biggest problems with early web ventures, let call it Web .5 (before blogs) and Web 1.0 (after blogs but until lets say, the advent of gmail; my demarkations are my own and fairly arbitrary), was the way that designs were hard coded into the same pages that held the content. While arguments can be made regarding authorial control, the problem with design/content merging is standardization. It's hard to update a website/hypertext product's presentation (or content) when you have to sift through a lot of irrelevant content, in every page in the document for every edit. With the advent of dynamic content (SSI/shtml theoretically, but really PHP), and CSS (style sheets,) this process is much simplified and centralized. Basically style sheets allow you to, in a single place, define a color for XYZ objects rather than defining the color of every XYZ object as red, every time. Dynamic page generation requires the server to do a little work, but basically allow the user to rather than quote something, reference another file (what, I think Theodor Holm Nelson refers to as transculsuion). Again these techniques allow us to produce hypertext that easier to edit, adapt to new settings, and manage.

These tools much more standard these days than they were even 4 years ago, and make it posssible, I hope to allow hypertext products to endure longer-term, and make it possible for these texts to develop and change, with out subjecting their authors to incredible daunting revamping processes. Why does this matter for publishers? It seems that hypertext displays are hindered by unclear design standards or convention. We know how to read books, we don't have the same sort of intitutive backgrounds for hypertext, and this is something that needs to be addressed in some sort of meaningful way. Also, some sort of standardized design, would, I hope allow a hypertext to be published not just on your website, but in a number of different hypertext environments, like portable devices, kiosk/console setups, multiple websites, and as offline bundles, which would be roughly analogous to paperback, hardback, (and etc.) editions in the dead tree world.

Publishers without Presses

In a lot of ways I don't think that drawing analogies between new and old media is the most productive method in the world. For instance, while blogs are a lot like news paper columns (particularly at TealArt), there's a way in which a blog is nothing like a newspaper column. The same with pod-casts and radio. Similar in some basic fundamental ways (audio, format), but compleatly different in terms of other features like distribution, monitization models, and production frameworks. So having said that, I'd like to think about the role of the "publisher" in the hypertext context.

Publishers, by my eye perform a number of important roles: they undertake some of the (financial) risk of publication, they organize editorial production (copy editing, technical editing, layout/typsetting, etc.), they organize the promotion and advertising, and they help grant legitimacy.

These are all things that an aspiring creator/writer can of course do, and we've seen all sorts of levels of self-publishing from Thomas Paine, to Edgar Rice Burrows, to the hordes of 'Zine makers, to god only knows. The problem with this is that there are only so many hours in the day and you can spend your time publishing your books or writing them. Also, its incredibly difficult to grant yourself legitimacy (though some self-published authors can pull it off, they generally have a name for themselves through other means) and promotion is hard to maintain on the same level.

So while self-publishing has become much easier, particularly in digital/hypertext formats, some sort of publisher model, might still be really beneficial. I might tend toward a more self-publishing co-op model, but it's along the same lines.

In order for hypertext to be successful, it needs to both be readable, and read, and while authors/creators have some measure over the latter, doing something to replace/fill the publishers role, in this "new" media, is something that I think would probably help promote consumption and consumability.

'till next time, tycho

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