THE READER IS A LIE: PUBLISHING FOR A PUBLIC

Back when I use to operate my own online publication (read: euphemism for blog), I would often reach the brink of folding (or whatever the digital equivalent is), due to a mix of exhaustion and a lack of growth in readership.  It was only natural, then, that I would then suddenly receive an encouraging tweet, email, or I would meet someone who recognized my publication and say something along the lines of, “I had given up on reading blogs until I found yours!” and my heart would melt at these little gestures. Alas, I finally did lay to rest my online publication with the stark realisation that I had never “found my reader,” as my peers and mentors would say. This elusive “reader,” yes, the one creature who every publisher hunts as if they were an endangered species in a jungle of common critters. The problem with identifying a “reader,” is that they are too easy to praise for a publication’s success and blame for its failures. But has anyone even stopped to ask, “is there even such thing as a ‘reader?’” Michael Warner solves this existential issue in his essay, “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” The answer is no, the reader is a myth we publishers tell ourselves when we lay our heads at night. Oh, but if you can understand your “public,” then you’ve got yourself a meaningful publication.

 

FORGET THE READER

You’ll often see it in the letter from the editor: “Dear reader,” the Editor-in-Cihef will begin. Warner refers to the elusive “reader” as either “the nominal [addressee] and the implied addressee,” although he remarks that the distinction makes no difference to the editor,

But for another class of writing contexts­−including literary criticism, journalism, “theory,” advertising, fiction, drama, most poetry−the available addressees are essentially imaginary, which is not to say unreal: the people, scholarship, the republic of letters, posterity, the younger generation, the nation, the left, the movement […] These are all publics. They are in principle open-ended. They exist by virtue of their address. (my emphasis, 416).

It would seem then that the elusive “reader” is the Santa Claus of the publishing world; it’s okay that he doesn’t exist, it’s the principle that matters. On the other hand, what becomes of all the advice we hear referencing the “reader?” For instance, Stephen Osborne, founder/publisher/ editor-in-chief of Geist Magazine can be heard roaming the halls of the Woodwards building saying, “you can ask the reader who they are, but never ask the reader what they want” (personal conversation, Feb. 25, 14). Warner accounts for this when he brings up “polling … [it] tries to tell us what the interests, desires, and demands of a public are… however, this method proceeds by denying the constitute role of polling itself as a mediating form” (416). With that in mind, I think Osborne is wrong about asking the “reader” who they are. We may know that Santa likes his cookies and milk, but even in terms of advertising, as Warner includes in his list of “writing contexts” above, the “reader” is still “imaginary” (416).

 

START WITH THE SUBJECT

So without a “reader” in mind, how does a publication have any focus in its editorial direction? The answer is to think beyond the “addressee” (416). The answer is to focus on a public. After all, “publics do not exist apart from the discourse that addresses them,” or in my rephrasing, publics are apparent within the discourse addressed (416). With that in mind, publishers should start with what we often call the subject of a publication, the “what is this magazine about?” question.

Take for example, our PUB 606 projects. Our group has devised Shed, a digital-first publication that addresses what it means to have well-being in small spaces and quality appliances. The discourse that Shed embodies can be contained to the “quality over quantity” lifestyle decisions people make in their home and in their habits. In our magazine, we are free to talk about microlofts and “body image experiments,” all in the name of minimalism.

It’s been really interesting to watch the polarizing opinions of the industry professionals that have reviewed our magazine, and see who speaks in terms of readers versus publics. For instance, Jim Tobler, editor of Montecristo Magazine, and Lori Chalmers, publisher of TC Media (Vancouver Magazine and Western Living), unanimously agreed that the concept of Shed spoke to a certain type of understanding that living with fewer material possessions is a blessing, contrary to mainstream consumer culture. They were surprised to find a lack of comparable publications and congratulated us on having the foresight to jump into the minimalist conversation and steer it in the direction we want. Nevertheless, it was clear that Tobler and Chalmers understood that we were dealing with something greater than subscription base. We were dealing with a community, an industry, a “public,” in Warner’s terms.

Alternatively, other industry professionals like Matt O’Grady of the Globe and Mail, and once again, Stephen Osborne of Geist, chose to challenge the concept of our magazine in terms of readers and audience. It’s important to note that these challenges are, of course, fair to ask and needed to sustain an appropriate business model. However, their language is quantitative, not qualitative. I would much prefer to hear Osborne and O’Grady use words like “subscribers,” and “magazine buyers,” when referring to the “reader” of a publication. Without the specification, this ambiguousness can lead to poor editorial direction that strays a publication from engaging a public in meaningful conversation. Book publishers make the distinction between those who read books and those who purchase them. Why can’t periodical publishers do the same?

Let us then define the public as both the “subject” of the publication and all those that are mediated by it. Moreover, we can redefine the reader now as he or she who literally reads the words of our publication (whether bought, gifted, or whathaveyou). Alas, we now have an agreeable language to analyze the state of publishing for publics.

 

PUBLISHING FOR A PUBLIC

Gawker Media, Kinfolk, and pretty much any zine you can think of fits the bill of publishing for a public. Nick Denton, founder of Gizmodo, Gawker, Jezebel, Lifehacker, etc., is utterly destroying the traditional idea of journalism, and fostering in its place what we currently call gossip. As the origin story of Gawker goes, Denton and his other journalist buddies would read each other’s articles in their periodicals and then proceed to get each other drunk so they would spill the beans on what they weren’t allowed to publish. Denton has made $400 million in revenue based on replicating this strategy: identify a public and give them a platform to continue their discourse. Keep in mind that, as Warner writes, each of Denton’s websites is a single text, and,

No single text can create a public. Nor can a single voice, a single genre, even a single medium. All are insufficient to create the kind of reflexivity that we call a public, since a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. Texts themselves do not create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time. Only when previously existing discourse can be supposed, and when a responding discourse can be postulated, can a text address a public (420).

Well, why do you think Denton created Kinja? In plain, Wikipedia terms, Kinja is “a free online news aggregator … that allows its users to ‘bookmark’ blogs… These excerpts, known as ‘personal digests,’ are compiled into one page of excerpts.” Kinja sounds like “concatenation of texts through time” if you ask me (420). According to an article on Playboy SFW (Safe for Work), “Kinja aims to do nothing less than turn Gawker Media’s 80 million monthly readers into willing accomplices, a virtual nation of gossip reporters.” Denton has succeeded in fostering the publics he mediates to essentially self-sustain themselves through their contributions to his texts, and of course, the discourse at hand.

 

CONCLUSION

The biggest challenge for publishing for a public is that you can never stop. Unless you’ve created some kind of feedback loop like Kinja does, the publication only belongs to a public while there’s promise for more publication. As Warner notes, “publics have an ongoing life: one doesn’t publish to them once for all … all publics are intertextual, even intergeneric… there is no moment at which the conversation stops and a decision ensues…” (421). So, where does this leave the current state of periodical publishing? Could the reason for newspapers dying be that they are written for the public and not for a public? Kylie Jane Wakefield wrote an interesting article on Contently called “Can Hyperinterest Journalism Provide a New Model for Publishers?” Perhaps “hyperinterest journalism” will be the mainstream word for publishing for a public? What about the concept of journalism as we think of it today? Clay Shirky postulates,

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work. We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence.

I prefer to believe that there definitely is a “19 year old kid” out there creating an intertextual publishing platform for a public. Just be sure to tell him the reader is a lie, and that way, he won’t give up so soon.