Geoffrey Long


On Middlepublishing

A Poet's iPod Guide to Art

On Digital Storytelling and
21st Century Literature

On Toys and Transmedia

Fixing Disney

Fixing AOL

Digital Video Poetry

Bluetooth PCN

On Middlepublishing

When I first started Inkblots ten years ago, its mission was to be a literary magazine that didn't suck. I wanted to do something more vibrant, more accessible and more fun than the usual dry, pretentious fare.

Since then, new publications like McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and The Believer have become great examples of literary magazines that are appealing to today's 18-35 set. Meanwhile, Inkblots has also grown and changed quite a bit. In a way, the Inkblots archives are a strange mirror of my own growth, almost a diary. (Hell, the editorial is my personal weblog, for crying out loud.) When I went abroad and studied in England in 1999, I added the photojournals of "On The Road" into the mix, which then became one of my favorite features. As I grew increasingly interested in more serious thoughts and writing, Inkblots began publishing more and more "serious" work as well. For a long time, I worried about this level of personal involvement in the magazine's production. Surely a "real" magazine wouldn't be so tightly run by one person? Such a thing, after all, is certainly little more than a more complicated weblog, right?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is not really. There's room for something in the middle, something between regular publishing and micropublishing. Because of this bizarre placement, and for something else I'll explain in a moment, I propose we recognize such projects as middlepublishing.

What is middlepublishing?

It is likely that a tension between publishing and micropublishing has existed ever since the invention of the printing press. What kinds of arguments must there have been between admirers of the hand-lettered work of monks and advocates of the Gutenberg Bibles? Similarly, small publications have flourished in recent decades as broadsheets, newsletters, 'zines, and now websites and weblogs. The weblog is the latest victor in a Darwinian competition of cost-to-audience ratios, since for relatively little money a weblog author can spread his particular point of view to millions of visitors. Further, when the weblog showed up it removed one further barrier of entry: one person could now create an entire little media outlet, a sort of digital column without the hassle of finding or creating a publication to contain it.

This explosion of one-person publishing, coupled with the rise of vanity presses and on-demand publishing, has driven the concept of micropublishing down to an entirely new level of small. The population of 'zines has dropped procipitously in the last decade, as demonstrated by the death of its chief directory, Factsheet Five. However, this leaves a sizeable gap in the publishing ecosystem: a weblog's content is necessarily myopic. When you strip away the rest of the magazine, you remove the multiple viewpoints and types of content that makes it well-rounded and an entertaining experience. Modern media junkies like myself can cobble together a sharp digital newspaper or magazine of sorts through the judicious use of bookmarks, but most of the populace won't want to take that kind of time, or want to go through those bookmarks daily.

It is in this vacuum where middlepublishing begins to flower. Middlepublishing is the creation of an anthology or collection of work compiled by someone whose goal is to share content they've enjoyed with others.

Middlepublishing as coolfinder

This weird middle ground, tucked somewhere between a webzine and a weblog, is exactly what Inkblots has always been: a personal 'coolfinder' site, made up of all the cool stuff made by cool people that I've come across since our last edition. When I meet someone whose work I enjoy, I'll invite them to contribute something to our next edition, so that I can then share their work with all of you. Thus, the second aspect of middle in middlepublishing: the magazine thus plays a sort of middleman making introductions. You see this same concept in the sideblogs kept by so many webloggers, little lists of links to things that they find cool, but these lists of links require the visitor to jump through to these disconnected elements. Links don't bring the elements all under one roof – there's a split second of hesitation in the fear of leaving the comfort of a place you trust, and, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Blink, that split-second is often what makes all the difference.

Why would anyone, publishers, readers or content creators, bother with middlepublishing? For starters, many webloggers dream of someday moving to "real" publishing, having their works appear on actual paper and in actual books. To get there, many would-be writers need to hook up with agents, who often use their list of publications as a vetting process. Unless your weblog has become a staggering hit, you can write profusely every day on your weblog for several years and still not have very much to professionally show for it. If middlepublishing begins to make a comeback, with editors that invite their favorite content creators to join up instead of having big slush piles and arduous submissions processes, then content creators can work away on their own weblogs and send out work as it's requested, gathering publishing credits and expanded readership with each new syndication.

Is this model anything new? Not really. It's very much the same kind of thing as zine publishing in the 80s, where a passionate editor would hand-select his contributors and publish the resulting creation as a labor of love. The difference is, in this day and age, new technology can suddenly play a much larger role, and the types of media that can be easily contained begins to expand.

How new technologies facilitate middlepublishing

There are numerous ways that new technologies make middlepublishing attractive. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Multiple media

In my opinion, the next New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly will need to embrace new technologies and expand to include additional forms of media. It's not a new idea – Res already bundles a DVD of new and interesting content with each issue, including music, short films, music videos and movie trailers. For online middlepublishers, restricting yourself to just one media seems silly, and utterly unnecessary. It's just as easy to publish photographs, MP3s, video files or even video games as it is to publish text; anything that the editor comes across that is absolutely charming can then be, in some way, shape or form, assimilated into their next edition.

As Inkblots moves forward, it is my goal to include these kinds of features in each issue. In our 2004 edition, I plan to incorporate both video and audio files wherever possible. The addition of such high-bandwidth files will cause our bandwidth usage to skyrocket, but the increase in the quality of the experience should justify those costs.

2. Affordable transmedia publishing

At long last, on-demand publishing is becoming available to micropublishers. Using a service provider like CafePress, a middlepublisher can escape the high initial investment of printing cratefuls of books or magazines that aren't guaranteed to move. By using such a provider as an online vendor, visitors to the middlepublisher's production can click a button, enter in their credit card information, and receive a print edition in the mail soon afterward. This is ungainly, as it doesn't offer the instant satisfaction of a newsstand or bookstore purchase, but is infinitely more cost-effective for a small publication.

Alternatives are slowly becoming available. One option is to allow for paid PDF or Flash downloads. This seems dodgy, because one person could download a PDF of your production and then upload it to numerous other websites for free consumption – however, if you believe in the success of small indie bands as their music propogates throughout peer-to-peer networks such as Napster, this could actually be an enviable situation. Some magazines are already embracing this model, although their business feasibility is questionable. If such magazines were released in PDF or Flash format for free, any supporting revenues would need to come from additional external sources, such as advertising, merchandising, alternative-media purchases ("buy a printed, bound version of this PDF"), sponsorship or NPR-style membership. Inkblots will be moving towards more of these alternative-revenue options in the future, which should hopefully then allow us to offer more and more complicated incorporated forms of media (full-length independent movies, for example).

3. The incorporation of social software and The Creative Commons

This is where things start to get really exciting for content contributors, so bear with me.

Publishers want good work, and often need it on an extremely short turnaround time. Everyone who has ever done any kind of creative project larger than themselves knows the feeling of being up against a deadline with one crucial component missing – something that didn't come in on time, or wasn't what was promised, or just isn't up to snuff. This is a problem.

Content creators, on the other hand, are often stymied when they face off against the hurdle of getting publishing credits. They want to get their work out there, but don't know how to go about doing so. The submission guidelines for many publications are so vague that they seem downright ominous. No creator's work is ever good enough in their own minds to go up against the piles and piles of top-notch submissions that they imagine must also be on their would-be editor's slush piles. (That editor, meanwhile, is tearing his hair out wishing he had something as good as the stuff in that creator's trash can.)

How, then, to bring these two together?

There needs to be some kind of system by which my fellow middlepublishers can tour Inkblots and poach the talent I've included in that edition. I have no qualms putting would-be editors in touch with my creators – part of the reason why I do this is to help get the word out about these people whose work I enjoy. Therefore, each piece needs to have some system in place where a reader can go to find out more about their work or read more, and where a middlepublisher can go to obtain as-of-yet unpublished or republishable work by that author.

I propose a three-prong system.

  1. First, we need a social software-like system where people can search for work based on its similarity to other works, much like an Amazon recommends system. Sites like already do this to great effect, but it doesn't really allow for quick jumps to more actual content.

  2. Second, as I mentioned above, a middlepublisher who joins up with such a system needs to build those 'poaching mechanisms' into their publications, so that what they take from the commons remains connected to the commons.

  3. Third, because yes, I did say commons, is an implementation of the Creative Commons system on the part of the content creators themselves. As a content creator myself, the idea of setting my stuff free out in the wild is terrifying, because I would ideally like to be compensated for what I slaved so hard to create. However, if I create a personal site (or set up my section of the social software site I mentioned in the first prong) where I can post content that can be freely distributed, along with lists as to where that content has already appeared (a la the TrackBack system for weblog entries), and a secondary section for additional paid content, then would-be middlepublishers are provided with two options: syndicate their free stuff which has already appeared elsewhere, or pony up for original, exclusive content. Meanwhile, the content creators go about their lives happily creating what they love (and would have created anyway) and throwing new works into their paid-content bin for would-be publishers to browse.

What's especially attractive about this three-prong model is the way it allows content creators to capitalize off of the Creative Commons system while still entering work back into the commons. For those of you who are familiar with Lawrence Lessig's metaphor with the common field shared by all the shepherds, it's like setting the first acre of your private property to be free, and then charging for the grazing rights on the rest of your property.

In other words, the first one's always free. :-)

This inversion of the usual publishing model is akin to what financial companies like LendingTree are doing. The hope is that it allows for a new generation of terrific grassroots content to come to the fore, and supports the creation of a new generation of online creative anthologies.

What's next: Inkblots, and middlepublishing

Of course, all these concepts don't mean a thing if you don't put your money where your mouth is.

Over the next few months, I'm going to rework to use this very model of content creation. I'm going to go trawl through my archives and post a ton of work that I haven't shared here before, throwing all my caution to the wind and building in a system by which would-be publishers can obtain publication rights and would-be readers can obtain copies on the cheap. I'm going to see what comes of this, and I'm sure I'm going to write more about it here. I'm also going to attempt to implement this new system, albeit in some rudimentary format, in the 2004 edition of Inkblots. It's going to be a lot of work, and the experiment may fall flat on its face, but hey, that's why it's an experiment.

And, hey, if I can start yakking up my findings on some panel at SXSW, I'll be a happy boy. Don't forget, just as with my proposed three-prong implementation of the Creative Commons, self-interest has to play a part in this somewhere. Otherwise, it's doomed to suffer the same failure as pure communism: failure from a misunderstanding of human nature. By realizing three critical aspects of modern human media consumption, that everybody wants to know what's cool, but don't have the time to find it for themselves, that publishers want to bring their audiences what's cool, but are often at a loss for access to it, and content creators want to share their work with people who will find it cool, but are stymied by the system and need to be compensated for their work, it's my hope that middlepublishing will catch on in a big way.