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Distributive Publishing with OBS

by Laura Fillmore

Rockport, Massachusetts
June 26, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.
laura@obs-us.com

Consider any finite publication, whether on paper, vinyl, disk, or other medium, a "contained" publication. This means that the contents of the publication exist within the boundaries established by the author or publisher in response to the capabilities of the medium of publication and, to some extent, the readers' expectations. A CD may contain text, pictures, video, and sound, but as long as its contents, regardless of how they are presented, arranged, or linked together, constitute a discrete set of information, then it is a contained publication.

A "distributive" publication, on the other hand, possesses protean and kinetic properties that defy set boundaries and exploit the distributive properties of the Internet, a worldwide computer network of networks connecting millions of machines and tens of millions of people; the Internet is growing at an exponential rate. The distributive publication is an interlinked set of digitized resources located on multiple computers around the world, all connected by the World Wide Web (W3), a subset of the internetworked computers that make up the Internet. The W3 computers form a subset of the Internet by virtue of the fact that they can communicate among each other using common HTML (HyperText Markup Language) coded files.

HTML files can be accessed by a suite of multimedia Web browsers or readers, one of the most popular of which has been Mosaic, a free browser created by the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. There are other free multimedia Web browsers available, notably Cello and Lynx (for text only); a number of companies are at present developing commercial W3 browsers. As far as we know, these commercial browsers will also access HTML files.

The combination of W3 with tremendously popular and easily usable browsers has yielded a flourishing of multimedia publications on the Internet. Browsers serve as "graphic front ends" for the distributive HTML files on the Net--analogous perhaps to the dashboard of the car you drive around the Internet. Using these graphic interfaces, people use a mouse with their computers to point and click at highlighted areas on their computer screens in order to access resources located either on their own machines or elsewhere on the World Wide Web.

One "drives one's browser" or navigates around the Net using a process called "linking." To understand linking, one should have a basic familiarity with hypertext, which basically involves breaking information up into chunks and enabling the reader to link these chunks together in whatever way he chooses. For example, if one takes a sequential text, such as a travel book, and marks it up in HTML to make it a hypertext document, one would put codes around the various chunks of meaning so that the document could be searched, customized, or rearranged using the computer. The resulting document could be saved on the user's machine, printed out, or simply accessed and used on a one-time basis. If the travel book was about Bed & Breakfast in New England, the hypertext editing would involve coding the text into chunks marking off geographical areas, creating chunks that show the graphic elements in the book, such as maps or cultural resources in a particular area. The reader would then access these chunks of information depending on what he is interested in.

The hypertext environment allows the reader to link to any kind of digitized file; the files linked to may be text, pictures, videos, sound, or kinetic "events" on the Internet, such as mailing lists, email boxes of people, or LISTservs. The hypertext environment is basically a reader-driven environment because the reader controls what he clicks on, what he links to. Using graphic browsers when one looks at the screen, one generally sees two colors of type: black and blue. The black type indicates static type, whereas blue type, or a graphic file surrounded by a blue border, indicates "hot" areas, or areas with links behind them. These two colors may vary, but the point is that the color-coded nature of the links serves to differentiate among them. Again, these links can lead further into the document at hand (for example, offering access to multiple photographs for one particular site, or multiple footnotes for a stretch of text), or the links can lead outside of the document itself to somewhere else on the Internet. In the example of the Bed & Breakfast books, one such external link would be to an online weather service, offering the reader up-to-the-minute weather reports for the area the reader wants to visit. This linking of a weather report to the text of a book illustrates one fundamental principle of successful distributive online publishing: it offers the online reader something he cannot get from paper or other contained media.

These internal and external hypertext links are what give distributive publishing its unique characteristic, its unbounded nature. The author or publisher in a distributive publishing system is responsible not only for the core content itself, regardless of the medium that content assumes (text, pictures, video, sound, kinetic), but also for the links. The new publishing position of Link Editor assumes great significance, for the links, both external and internal, can affect the meaning of a distributive publication as much or more than the core content itself. And the links effectively erode the boundaries of time and space around a given publication.

A successful distributive publication is not "put to bed" and published, as a newspaper, movie, or book is when it is finished. Like the Heraclitean Stream, the Internet is an everchanging environment; what was context yesterday might be flotsam and jetsam today. The existing links must be continually tested, new links need to be made, and, importantly, thanks to the unique property of reciprocity of distributive online publications, readers' suggestions can be incorporated into the core text. So in distributive publishing, the production cycle proves just that, a continuing cycle, rather than a finite process of producing a "contained" text from writing through printing. The boundaries of space also assume a new definition: when a reader is online, and customizing his reading experience as he goes (for example, selecting items pertinent to his interest on menu after menu), it is no longer practicable or even desirable for a publisher to include all possibilities for all readers on his core publication. The successful publisher will instead support a well-selected and well- maintained set of links rather than seek to provide the comprehensive content himself.

This brings up the matter of control, for most authors and publishers are comfortable with the notion of creating and delivering to the public verbalized ideas and realized images they have either created themselves or licensed; the entire concept of authorship assumes a new tenor. Let's call this "transcendental computing," where the author's role becomes that of an intelligent and discerning intermediary between a hungry mind seeking knowledge and multiple sources of knowledge. The author need no longer work "simply" (and we use this word somewhat facetiously, understanding some of the difficulties of authorship) to formulate his own ideas in such a way as to convey these ideas to his audience; he needs, rather, to create an interlinked context wherein the reader can find and formulate a meaning more perfectly suited to his own circumstances.

At the present time, the business, or charging, model for distributive publishing does not yet lend itself to an easily adoptable, reader-based charging model, whereby an author or publisher can receive money from readers for the content, as book and movie publishers do today. However, that is not to say that there is no commercial model for publishing in the distributive environment. Quite the contrary. Adopting the advertising model from TV or radio, one can offer access to the distributive information for free, and at the same time receive funds from sponsors who seek to gain access to the vast Internet audience and whose information can accompany or be attached to the distributive content. This distributive approach to publishing serves as a kind of "marketing front end" for a book. As such, it does three essential things:

The sponsorship model developed by OBS allows our clients to discover the way readers use the online hypertext environment, what ideas and information they want, and how they access it. OBS encourages reader participation, and this interaction proves useful for all involved, as it becomes more clear that online publishing is about process and not about product. Through profitable online publishing using the sponsorship model, OBS expects to further refine our publishing programs to better suit the needs of our authors, publishers, sponsors, and readers.

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint. laura@obs-us.com


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