The moment I came across Milk and Honey was a definitive moment in my life; I realized how fascinated I was about the publishing industry. I read poetry in high school, analyzing form and meaning in Emily Dickinson poems or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it was always so confusing to me. I often wondered why poets couldn’t just get to the point or describe their thoughts in metaphors that make some sort of sense within the first read. To my surprise, Rupi Kaur and this poetry book happened, the poetic phenomenon that changed the poetry community. The feeling was instant, ironic to what this new age in poetry publication is called: Instapoetry.


Instapoetry is an adaptation of traditional poetic ideals into a transformative Internet subgenre. Poets have turned to Instagram, a popular social media platform, to share excerpts of their work in hopes of publication. Instapoetry refutes traditional poetic forms, and instead, polarizes a new style that entwines art with literature. Molly McElwee, in an article for Gibraltar Magazine, shares that Instapoetry is the use of this “photo-sharing platform [giving] poetry a much-welcomed fresh feel… the poems are bite-size, they fit within the square Instagram frame; their font is carefully selected, an aesthetic extension of their work. And, when well done, the platform has skyrocketed amateur writers to the literary mainstream.” [1] Since Kaur’s arrival, it was as if poetry was culturally relevant again. According to Booknet Canada, Kaur continues to dominate all book sales across the world, where “for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly. [2] In 2016, poetry sales increases by 79% over 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 the units sold increased by another 154%.” [2] Andrews McMeel Publishing announced that Milk and Honey “sold more than one million copies in print after just over a year… and are currently in their 16th printing.” [3] In this age of new media revitalizing poetry, shaping the poetry publishing industry, what is the legitimacy of Instapoetry? Thus, in the scope of this essay, I strive to explore what Instapoetry means in publishing, and defend the relevancy of Instapoetry, analyzing how it saves the poetry community by counteracting conventional poetic norms.


Michael Warner, in his scholarly paper, “Publics and Counterpublics” foregrounds a crucial theory that helps explain how Instapoetry has been so successful and unstoppable. Warner explains that a public is self-organized, a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” and “the circularity is essential to the phenomenon.” [4] In order to create this circularity, there must be participants that contribute to the discourse, which in this case are the poets and the readers. Warner considers that “a public is never just a congeries of people… it must first of all have some way of organizing itself as a body, and of being addressed in discourse.” [4] To organize itself, the public is “a social place created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.” It is constantly interactive and linking social interpretation together because social networks are a collective effort and exists in relationships between all participants. Instapoets produce Instapoetry solely for the intention of the poems being read. Without the Instareader, the poems would mean nothing and would not be circulated. This has become an important criterion for the public sphere to function coherently. Moreover, Warner explains that “a public is poetic world-making.” The contributions to a public are often performative acts, that the engagement itself can transform and shape the public. A unique correlation exists between the public and the text. An example is the form in Instapoems that can be adapted and used in other discourses, like Kaur’s iconic line breaks inspiring the works of several new Instapoets: Atticus, Nikita Gill, Amanda Lovelace. Ultimately, it’s quite intriguing and comforting for Instapoets to put their work on 800 million and counting content- creator generated social network service as if a guarantee that there will be a certain readership if the right amount of tags and hashtags are used. Instapoetry will always be a public between the intersection of Instagram and the Poetry Community, and in order to have an “on-going life”, it must have the supporters that continue to produce and contribute to the discourse.


In midst of this digital technology storm, it is uncanny to believe that technology has no effect on books, reading, and publishing. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It strives to simplify our lives, making basic human tasks almost disappear by the robotic programming of completing a task within the touch of a button (i.e. meeting someone face to face versus a quick text). The introduction of eBooks led many people in the industry to believe that print publication would be dead; however, studies show that specifically in poetry, Canada had the greatest sales yet in 2016. [6] Accordingly, Andrews McNeel Publishing proves to be the most successful publishing house that understands the market of Instapoetry and uses it to their advantage, publishing “eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year.” [6]. Kirsty Melville, president of Andrews McNeel, explains that “as a publisher, we go with where the culture goes.” [6] She continues with stating that “the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.” [6] It is as if Instapoetry acts as a complementary tool that revitalizes poetry genre in the publishing industry, where readers are compelled by these strong desires and interests after reading Instapoetry to do something about these feelings, to physically purchase the poetry book and contribute to the monetizing of poetry. Evidently, Instapoetry becomes a gateway drug that revives the public’s cultural interest in poetry, and by this inherent interest in poetry book sales, the poetry community lives on.


Why is Instapoetry hated on or seen as “a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world”? [7] Vinu Casper shares this fair and common critique on Instapoetry: “Poets who spend years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practicing their performance over and over before they take to stage, are being beaten to the punch by influencers with a steady social media presence and masses of followers. These so-called Instapoets get away with blanket statements and empty metaphors under the guise of poetry.” [5] She questions if these simple posts are more “for sake of engagement” as if a marketing ploy that schemes for likes or comment responses from Instagrammers instead of the poetry itself. Similarly, Tham Young, an English teacher critiques Instapoetry, calling it “fidget spinner poetry”, as if it demonstrates a millennial flaw. He suggests that millennials uphold short attention spans that make it harder to critically comprehend and analyze traditional works of poetry. [8] Instapoetry is then seen as laziness, that the incompetency to create a similar product of poetry based off of ancient standards is deemed as illegitimate or unworthy of the same value and praise. This furthers the generation gap within the poetic community, that the older traditionalist poets refuse to accept or learn to understand new styles of poetry. Instead, they turn this misunderstanding into hatred and exclusivity, a poetic culture war.


As a fellow Instapoet, I like to think that there are many reasons why Instapoetry is so favourable; an important one being that “they pack so much meaning into so little language.” [3]. They entwine “the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate share-ability.” [3]. One Instagram account called @Poets follow Kaur’s outburst of simplistic aesthetically pleasing visual/ phrases.  It features many poets that write one-liners/ one stanzas that sound like every day phrases or thoughts. An example is (insert image): “I aspire to be/ an old man/ with an old wife/ laughing at old jokes/ from a wild youth.” written by Atticus, a current popular Instapoet following the steps of Kaur. [9]

Or another that is simple: “you are in/ everything/ I see/” titled “six word poem – poets”. [10] As much as it sounds like everyday dialogue or thoughts, they are very relatable, shareable, “screenshot-able”, and “easy to recall if one is in need of an inspirational quote or late in the day mantra or an impulsive Saturday night tattoo.” [11]. They can be instantly felt and emoted, and if it is so easy to relate to them, it sparks the heavy desire to read more or read on; both that contribute to supporting poetry publishing. As well, Instapoetry becomes more accessible to the everyday reader as more contemporary themes are addressed: love, culture, feminism, gun violence, domestic violence, war, racism, LGBTQ, and other social justice topics. Perhaps it isn’t about replacing traditional works or forms, but using the current medium to foster the appropriate cultural relevance or representation to the era in which the new media poetry is produced. It’s an “innovative progression” [11], one that lures new readers into the inherent simple language in Instapoetry and understands deeper meanings about the life around them, all while using flowery language and poignant metaphors.


Whether it’s continuing to buy print poetry books in the store or reading online content, in the end, poetry is poetry; art is art. Who has the power to constitute what is right and what is wrong if arts and literature are subjective to the reader? In a world that becomes more and more complicated, isn’t it nice to come across poetry that can be simple yet make the reader feel an intense array of emotions? It’s not really different from older poets like Keats, Shakespeare, and Byron; Instapoets continue to “examine their present moment and turning that moment into art.” [11]. They lead a cultural revolution of introducing new, raw, emotional storytellers, while utilizing a simpler writing style, into the community. Sometimes I also find a hard time understanding how posts like “you are in/ everything/ I see.” can be seen as poetry, but perhaps there’s a poetic aesthetic to finding meaning in something so simple. It’s these wonders that continues our curiosities with poetry and makes us continue reading, scrolling.




[1] McElwee, Molly. “INSTAPOETRY – The Age of Scrolling Literature.” The Gibraltar    Magazine, 25 Oct. 2017, thegibraltarmagazine.com/instapoetry-age-scrolling-literature/.

[2] Canada, Booknet. “Poetry Sales Increase Again in 2017.” BookNet Canada, Mar. 2018, www.booknetcanada.ca/press-room/2018/3/7/poetry-sales-increase-again-in-2017.

[3] Flood, Alison. “Poet Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey Sells More than Half a Million Copies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/13/poet-rupi-kaurs-milk-and-honey-sells-more-than-half-a-million-copies.

[4] Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413-25. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. <http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/ warnerPubCounterP.pdf>.

[5] Casper, Vinu. “Challenging the Insta Poet Community.” PSU Vanguard, 13 Apr. 2018, psuvanguard.com/challenging-the-insta-poet-community/.

[6] Maher, John. “Can Instagram Make Poems Sell Again?” PublishersWeekly.com, Feb. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/75976- can-Instagram-make-poems-sell-again.html.

[7] Millner, Maggie. “Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print.” Poets & Writers, 2 Aug. 2018, www.pw.org/content/instapoets_prove_powerful_in_print.

[8] Gurtis, Alex. “Instapoetry – the Polarizing New Poetry Style That Is Making Poetry Relevant Again.” The Odyssey Online, 10 Jan. 2018, www.theodysseyonline.com/instapoetry.

[9] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bni6ktpgki-/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[10] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bndd8SIg7Ei/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[11] Miller, E. Ce. “We Need To Talk About Why People Hate ‘InstaPoets’ So Much – And Why They’re Wrong.” Bustle, Bustle, 31 July 2018, www.bustle.com/p/are-instapoets- destroying-the-art-form-reviving-it-a-defense-of-social-media-poetry-8530426.

Posting a poem instead of a selfie means you are asking people to engage with you at a deeper level, and that sort of subversion is part of poetry’s tradition
— Rishi Dastidar, theguardian


poem7With all the information the internet creates for the world to engage with, a surprising type of content is garnering a surprising amount of attention. Poetry is showing a steady trend in reaching readers and growing communities thanks to photo-sharing platform: Instagram. It’s the type of writing that raises eyebrows in book marketing; the peculiar manuscripts generally with fewer words than others, but often require more work to prepare. Poetry, this ‘underdog’ genre of publishing, is getting attention on a photo sharing app because it strategically uses hashtags, is designed to the same taste as what those who are on the app like, and it resembles the short readings that we have become accustomed to.




#NetGen Searches

When the internet came it quickly began sweeping people up and sending them across the web in a matter of a few clicks; it began to change the way people took in information. More images started to populate the digital landscape, communicating with one another essentially became instantaneous, and the internet became a place where short-form writing thrived and continues to do so in the success we see with poetry. With all of these affecting how people see and read, a new generation of readers came to be: the Net Generation, or Digital Natives, who “…have an inherent ability to read images, that ‘they are intuitive visual communicators’ who are ‘able to weave together images, text, and sound in a natural way’ (p. 2.5)…’The Net Generation is more visually literate than earlier generations'” (Journal of Visual Literacy, 2011).


Enter the poets of Instagram who appeal to this generation – my generation. Among pictures of heavily filtered sunrises are interjections of ones containing poetry; there is something to be said about a screenshot of words or a picture of someone’s writing on a typewriter. Poetry is as much a visual experience as it is a textual one. Taking it to a highly visual medium like Instagram opens up the possibilities of what can be done to the texts, and ultimately, who will be attracted to it. Take for instance, the.poetry.bandit (left), based here in Vancouver, BC with just over 21,000 followers. His poetry success is not accidental, however. Speaking with the writer himself, he spoke of being precise in how to get work to show up on people’s Instagram feeds.


Poets, like the.poetry.bandit, are writers who know that Digital Natives actively seek out what they want to read using a search technique proliferated by the internet: hashtags. #Instapoet, #Instapoetry, #PoetsofInstagram, #igpoets, and many more tags like these are associated with poetry on the app. These terms narrow in on what readers are looking for, weeding out any other writing, and images, that they do not wish to see. This greatly contributes to the success of the genre online as Melanie Figueroa, contributor to the blog: The Poetics Project, says:


…Poets have an advantage on Instagram. For published writers to those less established, Instagram—and features of the digital age, like hashtags for one—gives savvy poets the ability to reach a huge pool of readers from all over the world.


poem3Essentially speaking the language of the internet, Net Gen readers can get to poetry quicker, without having to pass through the middleman that is the publishing houses. Readers come to the poetry, instead of trying to get poetry to readers as houses try to do when look for a particular audience for a collection of poems. After having many guest speakers throughout the term, the ones touching on the marketing of books were quick to jokingly ask, “Who reads poetry?” when it came to publishing it. Though jokingly said, the idea is still prevalent that the genre is incredibly difficult to market. It’s highly specific, and readers of it are hard to identify. The hashtag works to solve this (left). Where publishers struggle, the same problem is nowhere seen in the digital landscape of Instagram as readers are having no problem discovering poetry there, as it is common to find most poetry accompanied by a slew of hashtags so readers can find them.


What hashtags also serve on the Instagram poetry community is establish a readership; identifiable people who fervently follow their favorite ‘Instapoets’. While many publishers ask, “Who reads poetry?”, that question is not so applicable on Instagram. By giving instant access to their writing, these poets can establish an immediate relation to their readers, something that could take a large amount of time and resources to achieve if done through a traditional publishing house’s marketing departments. The levels of engagement are heightened and hashtags open the floodgates for poetry to flow out, directly to readers. Figueroa mentions in the blog post how, because of hashtags, writers “…can begin developing a following early on in their careers before they even have a single thing in print. This completely upturns the typical way that the industry works, where publishers act as ‘gatekeepers'”. Associating images of poetry with hashtags is what lends the Next Gen as such fervent devours of Instapoetry; and example of how floodgates can be opened without the ‘gatekeepers’ of publishing.

The Look of InstaPoetry

poem5Like the.poetry.bandit, All of riojones7‘s writing is greatly visually treated, and at most times written with a typewriter, torn out and captured in the photo. Many poets do this sort of treatment for their work on Instagram. By treating poetry this way, and occasionally with a filter Instagram has built in, poets create their own distinct look; their brand on Instagram. They make their writing eye-popping, echoing poetry’s (and perhaps all writings’) tradition of being intimately produced with this vintage feel. This entire look is one that speaks to the visually literate generation; especially those who simply like ‘nice’ photos. It stops them in their tracks while scrolling. Heavy treatment of poetry on Instagram appeals because it easily attracts Digital Natives on a platform they are extremely familiar with, and adds to the visual experience of reading poetry; something that has always been an important facet of the genre.


As Heike Schaefer mentions in the article, Poetry in Transmedial Perspective: Rethinking Intermedial Literary Studies in the Digital Age, digital technologies “…have modified our aesthetic expectations and changed the ways in which…texts are composed, distributed and read today” (Schaefer, 2015). Being able to show poetry for what it looks like in the moment it is produced, and enhancing it with image-altering features, the poetry on Instagram perfectly positions itself as the look that those on the social media platform seek. Followers of these accounts are tremendous fans of the old typewriter look, and the way its photographed. So much so, that the.poetry.bandit recommends any poet starting on Instagram to invest in a typewriter to produce poetry on and then photograph. He says to “…Use hashtags, build a peer group, and let your writing do the talking. Get a typewriter…I think Tyler Knott and RM drake (fellow Instapoets) kind of made it a fad.” His words ring true, as almost all Instapoets with a large following have pictures of their poetry done by typewriting. By using modern digital technologies to capture old forms, poets on Instagram appeal to the Next Gen reader that is highly visually literate.


What also makes poetry on Instagram highly appealing to readers is its rawness: the lack of a middleman to edit. Tyler Knott (mentioned earlier by the.poetry.bandit), says that he “…never edits his 17-syllable haiku – ‘because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time’ – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft” (Qureshi, theguardian). Often times, photos from poets are ones where you can see where the typewriter corrects itself, there are ink smudges, and sometimes even entire lines crossed out. Capturing these moments in a photo has shown how our technology can modify aesthetic appreciation. This especially rings true for poetry as readers of it are often writers as well, and it is nice to see these mistakes where elsewhere an editor may edit them out, or modify the writing to what the house prefers.


poem2And what we prefer nowadays in terms of reading is drastically different from what traditional publishing provides. Being surrounded by all this digital content, we have become accustomed to reading shorter texts, and poetry on Instagram fits right into this. Since the platform is primarily a photo-sharing platform, the constraints it immediately puts on writing places poetry at a disadvantage. However, Instapoets turn this limitation into a strength as their writing is better suited to showcase than opposed to other kinds of longer writing that is generally in magazines – online and print (Figeuroa). Even the.poetry.bandit agrees as he says, “the base population that like stuff on IG is here for the quick and dirty feel good poems”. The precision with words poets on Instagram have is what draws readers in and is what enables them to garner followings in such staggering numbers.


Take for instance Instapoet, roseclu who has just over 9,000 followers. Along with presenting her poetry with a typewriter, there is also simple hand written work that appeals to readers. Surely, this kind of work can appear in traditional print; however, what makes this excel in Instagram is that the app has an ability to present things in a unique tone which echoes the past. As mentioned earlier, editing poetry on the app with things such as filters, give the writing a vintage feel. In the article The Real Reason People Love Instagram by Adam Farwell he says,


The idea that an Instagram photo simply mimics the effects of an old camera is only a baseline appeal for the Instagram app. What really attracts us to the visuals of Instagram is the association we make with the past. In a world visually saturated by media, we crave deeper meaning in our own expression.

And that is exactly what poetry does: it offers meaning in expression. Drawing on the opening quote of this essay saying how posting a poem instead of a selfie is asking viewers to engage on a deeper level, it is clear how a poem that is edited can emanate poetry’s tradition of engaging readers. The purpose of poetry has always been the same; the new medium it is being expressed with just amplifies this and people are taking notice to it.


“…a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce.”
The New York Times

The Instapoetry phenomenon has gone on to garner the attention of traditional and non-traditional publishing houses as well. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Web Poets’ Society: New Breed Succeeds in Taking Verse Viral”, Tyler Knott has been noted to release his first collection of haikus after being noticed on Instagram. Speaking to the increasing popularity of poets on Instagram, The Times says that the poems, “…are reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, attracting the attention of literary agents, editors and publishers, and overturning poetry’s longstanding reputation as a lofty art form with limited popular appeal.” This goes to show how an art form, that has long been frustrating to publish, can gain new momentum with new technology.


The Times does acknowledge, however, that “Instapoets will probably now shake up the literary establishment”. Instead, they are working to reshape what poetry means today; that it is not in any sort of decline, and that readers of it are becoming increasingly easier to reach. This is seen in the take-off of some who have landed books with publishing houses. Instapoet langleav has landed a literary agent and US publisher, and her collection Love & Misadventure remains the top selling love poems on Amazon. With poets like Tyler Knott and Lang Leav, “…three of the top 10 bestselling poetry books in the US at present have been written by poets at the forefront of the Instapoet movement” (Qureshi, theguardian).


What has always been a genre that most likely give publishers the most grief, poetry has found a way to thrive on its own, underneath the massive waves of the internet. Being put into a platform that would not be thought of as a place to go read things, writing poetry, and capturing it on Instagram works. It utilizes a search technique that New Gen readers are familiar with, and by doing so it easily accessing audiences that would be difficult to find by means of a traditional publishing house. Also, it establishes an early readership; something useful for those Instapoets who could potentially be noticed by a publisher.


It may not be like the praised poetry of the classics: T.S Elliot, William Carlos Williams, etc., but the Instapoet movement is one to redefine what poetry means to readers today. As the.poetry.bandit puts it, readers are “here for the quick and dirty feel good poems”. Since our generation is accustomed to reading such web-based writing, we might as well make some of it poetry in a medium that is accessible and most of all, known to try and make some publishers not frown so much when they think of how to get poetry to people.









Brumberger, Eva. “Visual Literacy and the Digital Native: An Examination of the Millennial Learner.” Journal of Visual Literacy 30, no.1 (2011): Article Excerpt. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-268067247/visual-literacy-and-the-digital-native-an-examination


Figueroa, Melanie. “Poetry In The Age of Instagram.” Last modified September 6, 2014. http://thepoeticsproject.com/2014/09/06/poetry-age-instagram/comment-page-1/


Schaefer, Heike. “Poetry in Transmedial Perspective: Rethinking Intermedial Literary Studies in the Digital Age.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, no. 1 (2015): 169-182.


Qureshi, Huma. “How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it.” theguardian November 23, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/23/instapoets-instagram-twitter-poetry-lang-leav-rupi-kaur-tyler-knott-gregson

Context, Not Container – Seminar Notes

By Josh Oliveira


Book" A Futurist's Manifesto

All Rights Reserved, O’Reilly Media

Title: Content, Not Container – Seminar Notes
Notes Author: Josh Oliveira
Essay Author: Brian O’Leary
*Found In: Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto
*Publisher: O’Reilly
*Published: August 20, 2012
*Editors: Hugh McGuireBrian O’Leary
*ISBN: 978-1449305604
For: Publishing 800
Program: Master of Publishing
School: Simon Fraser University
Date: October 19, 2015
Summary: In his essay “Context, Not Container,” Brian O’Leary, a publishing guru at Magellan Media Consulting, argues that, while content, container, and context have always formed the basis of publishing, modern publishers are stuck in an outdated paradigm that places container first and context last. In truth, their places should be reversed. These seminar notes will help explicate these and other points.


  • Containers: These are the form or mediums in which any publishing is transmitted. Example include books, magazines, websites, newspapers, and ebooks. These containers may appear rigid, but are highly mutable, even interchangeable, so that the same or similar information could be found in numerous containers. O’Leary argues our tendency as publishers is to focus overly on the container.
  • Content: Content is the true product that the publishing industry seeks to monetize. It consists mainly of written words that create meaning and provide information. In recent years, all forms of content, including book publishing have become “content in browsers.” Even print books now exist increasingly online, as supported by recent sales numbers released by goodereader.com62% of all fiction books of any format sold in the US in 2014 were sold online
  • Context: In the physical world, in which publishing once solely existed, O’Leary states “intermediaries like booksellers, librarians, and reviewers” provided context. In publishing’s increasingly online marketplace, however, context refers to “tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata.”


An Emerging Threat

  • Current workflow hierarchy considers container first and context last. Whereas they should should start with context so that “both discovery and utility are enhanced” and see “containers as an option, not a starting point.”
  • Content fluidity should be stressed to make all content more accessible to users “across platforms, users, and uses.” This will open more opportunity for engagement.
  • Nimble upstarts put context first by offering interconnectivity as the key feature of what they publish. Ex., Craigslist.
  • Readers increasingly want discoverability, which can no longer be seen as a “cost or add-on.”
  • Digital disruption has made container convergence inevitable. So former newspaper and magazine content must now be discoverable wherever readers want it.
  • Falling barriers have created new entrants into publishing, including former marketers and even readers! To continue to offer value, traditional publishers must master context not content. Ex. Huffington Post

The Challenge of Container First

  • XML allows tagging of content in web documents. It is most useful for cookbooks, education, and travel, and least useful for novels.
  • “Born Digital” Entrants are beating traditional publishers on context, reaching niche readers easier.
  • Container-focused publishers try to impose an old hierarchy on the digital space. Their use of metadata, SEO, and syndication offer insufficient context.
  • Content overload means we can no longer expect readers to find us. Publishers must start with context to make content discoverable and should consider containers outputs, not starting points.

Making Content Agile, Discoverable, and Accessible

  • Container focus conflates format with brand. The Wall Street Journal is a brand not a newspaper.
  • Container myopia is nearsightedness that overestimates importance of container. Only by eliminating this can publishing recognize it is the “content solutions business”.
  • Open API (application programming interface) offers users freedom to utilize content as needed. Printed book technology predates API. Refusal to accept demand for open API leads content to “obscurity, at best.”
  •  Example: Student crowd sources schedule data because the school did not make it available. Lesson: People will find data, so why not just give it to them? 

The Consequence of a Bad API

  • Piracy results from bad API. If someone wants the content, they’ll get it. So a publisher’s job is to monetize the acquisition process. If readers want the printed book or ebook, sell it. But if they are willing to read it on a website, monetize the space using ads, links, offers of sale, and optimal web positioning.
  • The best API companies know to avoid coming between readers and content, especially in terms of time and effort. This is the key to Amazon’s success.

The Emerging Role of Context

  • Context evolving: Past context systems like Dewy and BISAC had less content to organize. Only online databases can contextualize all that data now.
  • The editorial role remains relevant post-container because proper context can only be established by relevant, deep, and consistent tagging.
  • Publishing needs heart transplant to remove containers as central concern and replace it with context, which will require new workflows.

Implications of Content Abundance

  • Content must be open and accessible. Or readers will go elsewhere. Compliance not optional.
  • Publishers must compete on context. Content must be as discoverable as possible.
  • Publisher’s can’t compete on price. Too many are willing to give content away. Still, publishers must make content broadly available at various price points to increase engagement.
  • Publishers can help readers manage abundance by organizing content in context. This can be done via highly specific imprints, as Harlequin has done well for years.
  • Content must be multi-use and recombinable as downward price pressure make single- use, one-container content too expensive. Selling small chunks of larger content will be important.
  • Changing workflow will require retraining. In the future, publishing must produce contextualized content for all containers, not set containers of content with added context, as before.

Theory in Practice

Brian O’Leary co-edited the book of essays in which “Context, Not Container” appears, called Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. It is available for sale and to read in its entirety on PressBooks.com, a Montreal-based company providing ebook and print conversions for authors. That’s where we accessed it. The co-editor of the book, Hugh McGuire, founded PressBooks.

The book available from various online sellers, including the publisher’s own store, in all typical formats. On Amazon.com, it is additionally available as an ebook rental for under $1 per week. The essay further appears in a modified form on Mr. O’Leary’s website and appears to be the basis for some of his speaking engagements.

All this shows deep commitment to the article’s demands for context primacy, easy accessibility, various engagement points, container mutability, broad distribution, and recombination of content.


  1. Do we agree with O’Leary’s argument that the influence of containers is waning while that of context has increased?
  2. What are some ways publishers already seek to provide context? What more can they do?
  3. One of O’Leary’s premises is that piracy results primarily from bad API. With that in mind, how might authors make their content more available without necessarily giving it away?