A Picture of an Staples, Inc. easy button
A Picture of an Staples, Inc. easy button (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At last week’s SSP Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Priem after many months of exchanging comments with him in the Kitchen. Jason is a very nice guy, and is pushing the envelope in many ways, both of which are good things. One of his pushes snapped something into high relief for me — namely, his assertion of the common wisdom that “we are now all publishers” made it clear to me that we are not all publishers. Not by a long shot.

Jason was talking about how he’d just used Twitter to make a statement, and therefore was a publisher — in fact, we all were publishers, with our tweets, blog posts, and newsfeed updates. Snap! He’s wrong, I thought. And I knew why in a blinding flash of the obvious (BFO).

I asked Jason about it during the session, and he generally agreed.

When we tweet, blog, or update, we are not publishers. We are authors. Twitter, WordPress, or Facebook are the publishers. They just accept nearly everything we submit, so it feels like we’re publishers. But each company has sheltered us as authors from the risks of their ventures, is trying to make enough money to remain viable for years to come, and has created the venue we want to publish in.

Even Clay Shirky forgets this, the illusion of 100% acceptance is so strong. With immediate acceptance and publication, publishing seems like it’s just about pushing a button for a lot of the ephemeral networked writing we do these days. But it’s about pushing a button a very particular type of publisher has made available, after millions of dollars of funding, lots of technology deployment, long-term (they hope) business planning, hiring, infrastructure creation, and marketing.

Because we are not the publishers of our writing in these venues, we are subject to whatever these publishers want to do with our material. Twitter is launching a new weekly email digest, which will repackage some of my tweets for some of my followers. Did I give them permission to do this? No. But that’s the implicit deal I have with my social network publishers — I get free and relatively unfettered access to their publishing platforms, and they get to do what they want with my writing. WordPress can feature it wherever they want on their network, and Facebook can use it to inform targeted advertising.

The sneaky part is that we don’t realize this. The publishing buttons are so available and feel so empowering that we don’t realize there’s an economic transaction, and that perhaps we’re the product being peddled. We feel like the owners, but are not. We are merely writing for the owners, the publishers — Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, to stick to those three examples (there are more — Blogger, FourSquare, Google+, any site you write a review for, and so on).

How can you know you’re not the publisher? There are a few hints:

  • You’ve assumed no risk. Real publishers of all types shelter authors from risk.
  • You have no legal exposure. Real publishers assume legal exposure of one type or another.
  • You have no authors or contributors, and write whenever you want. Real publishers have to keep the content coming or perish.
  • You can’t fail financially because you don’t publish well. Real publishers can fail if their publishing initiatives fail.

The last one of these raises an important point — I used to write for CompuServe.

Where’s my CompuServe publishing button today?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


19 Thoughts on "We're All Publishers Now? Not So Fast"

When you put it this way, scientific journals are also a form of social media. They are just not free and easy, but they are social. Let’s take back the term.

There was another interesting BFO at the meeting, when Richard Price of Academia.edu stated that scholarly publishers needed to become more like the native Web. I asked him to consider that perhaps the native Web is becoming more like scholarly publishers — Google is the impact factor networked, reputation measures matter, Google Scholar is another move toward our ways of handling information, and social means using your real identity. He generally agreed, as well. So, I think you’re right — what we know how to do is what’s being done. What’s depressing to me (and I’ve said this before many times in public) is that we didn’t do it. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others did it. Shame on us for that.


While I see where you’re coming from here, enough to recognize your position is roughly opposite to the internet party line in a potentially interesting way, I think your point about economic risk came out a bit muddled. That a “publisher” is a person whose role is to shield and incur risks on behalf of their authors is not necessarily a widely held belief among the Clay Shirky-types, but could certainly be an interesting (and probably quite defensible) argument for you to take up here.

As for linking the “illusion of 100% acceptance” to the more-or-less accepted fact that we are the product, not the customer, of Facebook et al. — saying this without mentioning any sort of post-publication filtering is a bit narrow and disingenuous. If the implication is that the pollution-from-factories stream of content (sorry, couldn’t resist) is being filtered for someone (data miners?), but not for us, what does it mean that many of us are content to dig through our entire Facebook feeds anyway?

This post, more than many others on the Scholarly Kitchen, gives me a clear idea of where you and I differ ideologically. Where the first point, about publishers taking on risk on behalf of their clients, is the sort of thing I would be eager to hear more about — particularly on this blog, and particularly in the context of scholarship and the internet — the second, about Facebook, acceptance rates, and monetization, still seems to me to be basically a question about the design of recommender systems.

Hi Alex,
I’ll have a post up tomorrow that gets into this a little further, at least from the point of view of the scholarly book publisher. Looking forward to your comments there.

But beyond the mere financial insulation a publisher provides a book author, one can also think in terms of technological investment. If we had no journals and everyone just posted their articles on their own websites, what happens when a new technological revolution or file format or enormous change happens? Think about all the money being spent by publishers now to develop semantic technologies themselves, let alone the enormous amount of money and effort spent to go through entire histories of journals and create modern, up to date metadata for each article. OUP just made a herculean effort to create a freely available metadata catalog for some 3 million pieces of content. If you’re a researcher with decades of work, and hundreds of papers published, are you going to invest the time and money to do that for yourself, or are you more interested in going forward, publishing new work? And what happens to the work of a deceased researcher, or one who has left academia? That’s one type of insulation a publisher can supply.

I think there’s a constant level of confusion though, around the word “publisher”. We’ve bundled so many different functions under that one word that it can be used to describe an enormous number of things.


The Internet party line isn’t quite right in a lot of ways, which is why we need to keep discussing it. Was Google a major improvement over Alta Vista? Yes. Why? Because it changed the premise that text search was sufficient (which was the Internet party line in 1997), and made it clear that reputation linking was far better for providing quality results. And if the Internet party line obscures the ownership, financial stakes, and property rights of things like Facebook and Twitter, then it’s not a very realistic party line.

Part of what a publisher does — a good publisher — is to create a great venue for authors or musicians or artists or researchers. This means staking a lot of risk on their ability to create value, but each author or musician or artist or researcher doesn’t have to take that risk. Instead, the publisher takes the risk. And the risks are myriad — the money invested to hire and keep talented staff, create and maintain brands, build and run and iterate technology, serve customers, understand the market, create viable legal frameworks across borders, and so forth. Even establishing the basic non-profit or for-profit legal entity takes a lot of work, and some new publishers have failed even at that. Cash flow, risk, brand, continuity, sustainability — these are not ideological points, but real-world things every publisher has to take care of, whether that’s Facebook or Google or NAS or Nature.

The recommender system as you call it exists no matter what — whether your acceptance rate is 100% or 5%, whether you make a lot of money or run a deficit. I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to this discussion, but if you want to tell me why you think it is, I’m all ears.

I suspect that the reason people like Clay Shirky don’t consider Facebook et al. to be publishers is because they consider the work of screening and developing material prior to publication (peer review, talent scouting, artist development, etc.) to be an integral part of the definition of “publisher,” and that is not something that Facebook et al. do.

The point you make about how these online publishing platforms (or whatever we want to call them) can do all sorts of stuff with our content that we didn’t envision is a good point. However, the roles these platforms take also don’t clearly line up with the roles that a traditional publisher has. I wonder if the entire author/publisher division of responsibilities/roles is being shifted to something that won’t clearly mirror the past.

One specific quibble I have is with your point about legal exposure. DMCA largely shields platforms like Facebook from responsibility for the content they host as long as they response promptly to take-down notices. The underlying legal liability for things like libel and copyright infringement resides with the author of the content.

Good point about the legal exposure. However, copyright and libel aren’t the only legal exposures, as Facebook knows, from the recent suits over their IPO to the Winklevoss twins. No authors were sued as part of these. The same with Google Books, I believe.

I had another thought:

The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery partners with Silverchair for online journal hosting, and presumably you don’t own any printing presses and you contract the printing of your journal to a printing company.

So, is JBJS not a publisher, then, because it didn’t develop and doesn’t own its own technological infrastructure? I think we’d all agree (on a Potter Stewart level, at least) that this is not the case and that JBJS is indeed a publisher.

But what makes JBJS partnering with other companies that have specific competencies in various publishing technologies different than an individual using a social media platform to “self publish”?

I don’t think I really asserted that technological infrastructure (or access to one) defined what a publisher does. But hiring companies to do work for you is quite different from using a social media platform. In the case of a hosting/development company or a printer (since print is a technology, too), a publisher contracts with such organizations and takes the risk of paying them to do certain work in the hopes that the value created will more than pay for the ongoing outlay. Your use of Facebook or Twitter doesn’t require you to assume financial risk, enter into a binding contract with service level agreements and exit clauses, or hire a lawyer to work through the contracts.

You mention technology deployment and infrastructure creation and then later talk about how publishers shield author from risk. I inferred from this that you were including the risk of investing into these things as one of the risks that publishers take on. (David Crotty also highlights the technology development aspect in his comment, and that may have subtly encouraged me to make this inference into your post.)

I was trying to make an admittedly imperfect parallel between how your technology service providers shield you from the risk of capital expenditure into online hosting and printing technology and the ways that online publishing and social media platforms shield users from those same risks that you list as one of the reasons the platform provider not the user should really be considered the “publisher.”

But our technology service providers don’t shield us from the risk of capital expenditure–they charge us through the nose for it. Realistically, isn’t the one paying the one who provides the insulation? Otherwise, the company that makes the paper is the publisher, not the company paying for it and turning it into a book.

I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t think I agree. If you decided to stop printing hardcopy journals tomorrow, you wouldn’t be stuck with a bunch of printing presses. (You might be stuck with exit fees from your current printer contracts if you’ve given them a guarantee of a certain number of pages printed or whatever.)

And for a publisher that’s smaller than OUP, that couldn’t have afforded to buy printing presses even if they had wanted to, this fee-for-service arrangement really does shield them from a lot of risk. For example, some people in my town started a small, independent literary journal. They’ve only published two issues so far, but if they folded right now, their founders wouldn’t be out the cost of buying a printing press because they didn’t have to buy a printing press; they contracted with a printing company that had already taken the risk of the capital expenditure of buying printing presses. The actual printing isn’t the only service that a printing company provides its customers; another service it provides its customers is spreading the costs of capital expenditures among all of its customers so that none of them have to bear the costs and associated risks individually.

Yes, publishers, like most rational actors, do try to minimize risk. I remember at one association I worked, the CFO had a notion of buying a printing press so we didn’t have to outsource printing any more. The problem is for a printing operation to remain viable, it has to be active for a great proportion of the month. We only printed a few times each month, so this wasn’t economically advisable. But even with minimizing risk, the printing contracts for even one journal can run into the low millions, which isn’t trivial. And, yes, printers assume a fair amount of risk, but they try to minimize their risk — by only keeping so many types of presses around, by warehousing paper wisely, by purchasing ink creatively, and by having a mix of automation and human labor.

All rational actors try to minimize risk. That’s Economics 101. But publishers still enter the contracts, fork over the cash, and so forth.

Another thing for you to cogitate on — subscription publishers assume risk by selling a subscription. That is, we’re functionally in debt to our readers until we fulfill the promised issues related to a subscription. We earn the subscription money we have only when we publish an issue. If we go under, we can’t earn that money. Even selling a subscription is an act of risk-taking for a publisher.

That’s in some ways a fair assessment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the printer is a “publisher”. To get back to my earlier comment, we bundle a lot of different services under the term “publisher”. One of those services is insulation from some risks. But that is not the sole service provided, nor the defining service that makes one a publisher.

If a printer’s primary business is printing fliers for an advertising company, is that printer a “publisher” as they insulate the advertising company from risk? My phone company insulates me from having to put forth the expense of creating a nationwide network, but I wouldn’t call them a “publisher” either. I think where one comes into the chain matters, the ultimate output matters, and what the entirety of the bundled services offered matters in whether one falls under the admittedly broad term “publisher”.

I totally agree that a contract printer isn’t a publisher. That’s actually crucial to my point, which is that risk and capital expenditure can’t be the defining characteristic for the “publisher” since all players in the non–vertically integrated publishing ecosystem shoulder some of the various risks and capital expenditures associated with producing a journal or book. My reading of Kent’s original post was that he was really focusing on shouldering risk and investing in/building technological infrastructure as the defining characteristic of the publisher, so I was trying to provide counterexamples of places where the “publisher” isn’t taking this role.

It’s who you’re sheltering from risk, which in the case of publishers is the authors. Printers shelter publishers to a certain extent. But that’s why I said “Real publishers shelter authors from risk.” Self-published book authors assume a lot of risk themselves (I speak as one). So, if you took from my post that I think publishers are the only ones in the economy who shelter people from risk, sorry. But everyone in the value chain shelters someone else from risk. That’s part of the value they provide. Publishers generally shelter authors from risk, and provide value in other ways (professional editing, strong branding, distribution channels, etc.).

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