The Medium Is the Message

In Tom Robbins' novel, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, sometime-CIA agent Switters embraces the tangent and elevates it to an art form. Admiring the yogaesque flexibility of language, Switters says, "I suspect there's a bid for empowerment behind it all, the power going to whoever seizes the right to coin the names. In a reality made of language, the people who get to name things have psychological ownership of those things. Couples name their pets and children, Madison Avenue names the products that dominate our desires…"

While printed books pre-dated Gutenberg by thousands of years, his name is practically synonymous with their widespread availability. But in publishing's digital age, e-terms emerge from the ether, many vanishing as mysteriously as they appeared. It's as if, given the infinite number of "publishers" proffering Web content, a clear point of origin is a thing of the past. Of course, corporate-types will continue to coin in quest for psychological ownership, but our current publishing incarnation may not have a Xerox or Kleenex.

Yet digital publishing seems bound to even more profoundly impact the way language and knowledge work than, as Marshall McLuhan posited in The Gutenberg Galaxy, the "change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book." And hovering between an age ruled by the power of the print world and one in which similar power will be measured in zeros and ones, publishers find themselves foraging in the glove-box for a road map to plot a steady course to the digital future.

Many publishers travel a route replete with dead-ends, detours, and occasionally, a pleasant road less traveled. And perhaps a desire for a McLuhan's-eye perspective is too much to ask, given that he had a two-century vantage point in analyzing the printing presses' ripple effect, while we are mere decades into the digital process.

Undaunted by digital content's permutability, Columbia University Press has published The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing, which doesn't limit its ambitions to supplying a starting point for discussion. Editor William Kasdorf writes, "The Guide covers the entire range of activities involved in creating, processing, producing, protecting, and preserving content in digital form, whether that content is ultimately delivered as print, e-book, or on the Web."

Moreover, it claims to practice what it preaches by also offering a digital edition of the text that leverages the medium's power. It provides personalization with "My Guide," which allows for saving of terms, searches, bibliography items, and bookmarks. In addition to the more-obvious chapter-level and author-bio links, the TOC offers links to various areas of interest in the text. The entire site, including glossary and index, provides one of digital text's most appealing aspects: searchability. And recognizing that a glossary can be a starting point as well as a non-linear referral tool, CUP provides links to the exact point in chapter(s) where the term is mentioned (love that context). Even in a standard dictionary, I've found myself baffled by the definition of a word as much as by the word itself. But given the power of exponential cross-referencing, The Guide links any potentially ambiguous term to its Guide glossary definition.

The search function itself proved fairly elementary, however, with no narrow or refine options and limited advanced functions. And a chapter dedicated to the role of search in digital publishing is conspicuously absent from the book.

EContent's own Bill Trippe coauthored the "Content Management and Web Publishing" chapter with Mark Walter of Seybold. They touch upon the infoglut problem (though this term is, perhaps wisely, not used in the book). They write, "It's not merely a Tower of Babel, it is a vast metropolis of Towers of Babel—some still standing, some merely apparitions of a tower that once stood." Yet it's clear that, along with effective content management, effective search is an important part of the complete CM solution.

Of interactivity, The Guide says, "contemporary Web readers assume they can do something in response to the material they are reading." To make the digital reading experience more compelling, interactivity is a digital publishing imperative. Yet, while The Guide employs personalization, it is sorely lacking in the type of interactivity best leveraged digitally. For example, clicking on a proper name produces a pop-up window with the option of saving to My Guide or clicking the company's URL to visit it. Clearly not interactive, this section fails to provide a company description or even to link out to one at Hoover's or the like.

While its site is easily navigated, The Guide's text encourages digital publishers to remember that readers will likely want to "navigate in a non-linear fashion." But they failed to recognize that some might want to travel in a straight line. At the end of a chapter, the user has to return to the TOC and can't just forge on ahead.

Yet, even with regard to The Guide's "flaws," digital may have the edge over its print predecessors. Kasdorf points to the mixed blessing for digital content publishers: "Digital technology in publishing is here to stay—but it won't stand still." Thus, in theory at least, The Guide could actually leverage the trial-and-error malleability of the medium it seeks to direct.