Context is King

On January 3, 1996, Bill Gates wrote a prophetic article called “Content is King.” In it, he perceives the internet (then, only seven years old) as a content aggregator, displacing the traditional communication sector into the digital realm: a virtual, digital marketplace of content. But more than that, Gates predicts the behaviours of potential audiences drawn to this online medium: what they would expect from digital content, and how they would react to digital mediums versus print. However, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, publishers enacted the opposite of Gates’ recommendations, and, almost two decades later, the question remains as Gates had originally posed it: “how often [does] the same company that serves an interest group in print succeed in serving it online”? In accordance with Liza Daly and Baldur Bjarnason, it seems that publishers are failing in their role as digital content producers. And yet, perhaps not in the sense that the developed technology is insufficient, as they would suppose, but that, as Michael Baskar suggests, publishers have ignored a meaningful discussion around the importance of digital context affecting creative content. The reliance of content on context is such that publishers (and authors) must start thinking of e-reading technology, apps, multi-platform publishing, and digital-first workflows in terms of creatively enhancing content, rather than acting simply as a means of circulation.

In his article, Gates writes, “to be successful online, a magazine [or other publication] can’t just take what it has in print and move it to the electronic realm. There isn’t enough depth or interactivity in print content to overcome the drawbacks of the online medium… If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will. They need to have audio, and possibly video. They need an opportunity for personal involvement that goes far beyond that offered through [for example] the letters-to-the-editor pages of print magazines” (Gates). This suggests what publishers, namely trade publishers, refuse to acknowledge, that a facsimile of print content onto digital platforms does not enhance the content in any kind of meaningful way; it may, in fact, decontextualize the content, and perhaps, as Gates warns, it doesn’t even serve the reader except as a point of accessibility. Baskar in his book, The Content Machine, in conjunction with Gates, affirms that “the network does not only reshape the distribution of content; it reshapes content—and us—as well” (43).

Reshaping content for a digital context has proven easier for establishments of academic and educational publishing, as well as non-fiction publishing, where readers can benefit from embedded links in works cited pages, interactive media such as video and audio to supplement content, bookmarking and referencing, and even peer collaboration through commenting and forum pages. However, it seems apparent from the Daly and Bjarnason articles that trade publishing in fiction is suffering a lack of creative, digital reimagining. In Bjarnason’s article, “Which Kind of Innovation?” he suggests that ebooks (and iBooks) have failed a viable readership only because publishers, as incumbents, have failed to develop the innovation in a meaningful way. Ebooks were meant to be digital print books, perhaps with the purpose of replacing print books altogether, in keeping with 1990s skepticism. Ebooks are format extensions, containing “no disruptive or innovative features,” and acting merely as “an accumulation of complex print-like cruft to aid the transition of [existing] illustrated or designed print books into digital” (Bjarnason). Against the recommendations from Gates, publishers’ use of this digital platform was to duplicate content instead of inject it with new, digitally contextualized content. Bjarnason goes on to say that ebooks, and perhaps EPUB in general, failed as a digital medium because “the skills and expertise [of publishers] at format transitions… weren’t applicable in the digital context” in part because they “stopped investing in sustaining innovations” (Bjarnason). I would argue that publishers have traditionally removed themselves from the digital conversation because they are unhappy with the current technology. However, it does not serve them, their authors, or their readers to not be a part of the exploration of and experimentation with new digital mediums. It is only after this process of research and discovery that they may be able to contribute to the development of a digital platform into a more robust model.

Others, like Daly, in her article, “The UnXMLing of Digital Books,” argue that books of fiction cannot be recontextualized for digital platforms: “novelists don’t create data. They create books… work[s] of human creativity with unpredictable contours” (Daly). In fiction, xml schema to aid predictability, consistency, and hierarchy are extraneous to a genre that is wholly unpredictable, inconsistent, and sometimes unhierarchical. Likewise, Bjarnason might argue that digitally contextualizing fiction through multimedia supplements, and the like, might seem undesirable to a reader of this genre. Similar to watching a film before you read the book, enhanced digital features in fiction may serve to replace content rather than supplement it. Neither Daly nor Bjarnason give much hope to the digital recontextualizing of fiction, offering publishers a reason not to explore these methods. Being somewhat traditionalist and largely digitally incompetent, I was going to argue in favour of Daly and Bjarnason; however, in my research and constant begging the question, “how could fiction benefit from digital recontextualization?” it becomes apparent that the fiction genre will not be contained in a vacuum separated from the advancements of digital technology.

Baskar would agree: “content is an embodied form of knowledge,” and with “the growth of new disciplines like the digital humanities [and transmedia storytelling],” it “further indicate[s] how book content has started to break the confines of print” (52-53). In fact, Baskar notes, “since the earliest days of the web, a new genre of literature has grown in the margins of creative writing. Variously called electronic literature, interactive literature, new media writing, network fiction or locative narratives, with connections to both video games and digital art, they contain graphics and images, are digitally produced, interactive and multimedia. They can be cross-platform, multiply authored, geo-locative and dynamically and algorithmically produced” (51). These forms of literature are using and repurposing mark-up languages, like xml, in an innovative way: blending content and context. Baskar gives examples like Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Aliceand Christine Wilks’ Underbelly. Both works generated unprecedented success, but neither of them produced through a traditional publisher, hinting at the paradigm shift that Gates imagined.

If publishers were to invest deeply into these types of digital projects, if they were to be part of the discussion around multi-platform publishing and digital-first workflows (as means of content creation rather than content circulation), and as readers become “more comfortable with digital goods… large potential markets grow before our eyes” (Baskar 51). Markets that, perhaps, are founded on legitimate disruptive innovation that Bjarnason speaks to. It is easy to imagine digital fiction, now only a niche market, encompassing a “significant component of the twenty-first century canon,” as Baskar makes reference to from Katherine Hayle’s book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons on the Literary (2008). Whether or not traditional publishers contribute to this canon remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Bhaskar, Michael. The Content Machine. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2013. Print.

Bjarnason, Baldur. “Which Kind of Innovation?” Blog, Baldur Bjarnason, 3 May. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. .

Daly, Liza. “The unXMLing of Digital Books.” Safari Blog, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. .

Gates, Bill. “Content Is King.” Blog, Craig Bailey, 31 May. 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. .

Hayle, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons on the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Print.

Maxwell, John W., and Kathleen Fraser. “Traversing The Book of Mpub: An Agile, Web-First Publishing Model.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 13.3, 12 Jan. 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0013.303.

McIlroy, Thad. “Has XML Failed Publishing?” Blog, Thad McIlroy The Future of Publishing, 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. .

O’Leary, Brian. “A Unified Field Theory Of Publishing.” Magellan Media Partners, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.

2 Replies to “Context is King”

  1. Gabi, using Bill Gate’s article as a lens for this topic made your essay accessible and interesting. You’ve brought in several great ideas from the likes of Michael Baskar and Liza Daly to support your argument. Bhaskar’s point about the network reshaping content and Daly’s point that novelists don’t create data are important ones. I certainly agree that in the world of fiction, publishers have largely failed to engage in a meaningful discussion on the importance of e-reading as a means to enhance reading as opposed to strictly as a means of circulation.

    However, I think you could have introduced your question around the potential of digital recontextualization earlier in the essay and explored the realm of electronic literature further. How do platforms like Wattpad fit in this changing landscape of fiction? Is there room for publishers on this platform? And what of works like Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice? If I remember correctly, that project was funded through government grants. Is there a need for governments to fund these projects if publishers aren’t willing to? Does it really even matter if publishers contribute to the canon of electronic literature?

  2. This essay shows some good engagement with the readings. I can see from the writing that you’ve taken them in and reflected on the author’s points of view. I appreciated the points you distilled from them, and think they added value to your essay.

    I did, however, feel that your own point was a little diluted and disjoint. I understood your essay to say that publishers should experiment with digital, but the link between this point, and the discussion of context vs content is not made clear. It is as though there are two competing ideas: context vs content which makes up the first half of the essay, and the role of publishers in exploring and experimenting in putting context first.

    A stronger essay would have tied these two together, presenting a coherent point that spans both.

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