What is the most exciting thing in publishing today?

This weekend I was thinking about the recent history of publishing content: What are the innovations and trends of the past? What is in the near future?

Let me give you a few examples of the kinds of things I am thinking about:

  • blogs
  • microblogs vs tumblr vs twitter
  • social
  • interest-based blog networks like Medium
  • Podcasts become popular (again)
  • recent trend in newsletters, especially paid ones
  • fediverse platforms like Mastadon
  • old skool Indie ‘zines
  • Cellphone novels
  • Kindle singles and other self-published eBooks
  • more novellas coming out in recent years
  • Wattpad

This is not an exhaustive list of publishing tools/models (if you have more please add them in the comments!).

These platforms go in-an-out of fashion. One reason is when a certain platform starts getting eyeballs, professional orgs come in and start crowding out indie voices (I really saw this both in blogging and podcasting). It is a kind of gentrification. We saw this with blogs and podcasts. I wish I could find the original quote, but I think of it as a dictum:

Everyone has a voice on the internet, but that doesn’t mean they will be heard.

Unknown

Network effects, especially driven by the big social media platform(s), means that content distribution is really bumpy.

On the opposite end, you get the “Yogi Berra effect.” You know:

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

Yogi Berra

So there is churn in online publishing, even if it is cyclical. Benedict Evans said in his most recent newsletter:

New internet distribution models work like slash-and-burn agriculture: OK for year or two and then it’s time to move on.

There is tons of content online, and if you want to contribute, which distribution channels should you use? How not to get buried?

Ben Evans points out:

… the average FB user feed has 1,500+ items a day – once you’ve followed everyone interesting you’ll never see what they post, and you’ve mixed your friends and your interests, and the algorithm hides what it will.

(This is a question I have been asking for a while, as I think about how to share all the photographing, filming, and writing about Japan I have been doing returning here 4 months ago).

In the early 2000s the blog was the tool, and RSS was the network that bound everyone together. RSS lost out to social media as the network, and in many cases social became the publishing tool (think of how many people just use Insta instead of a blog). You can write alone on the web on your blog forever and not be discovered because you have no distribution into/via the network. If you are trying to start up a new project, figuring out how to crack the nut of distribution and get effective reach is key. These are old problems, but they stay evergreen due to the musical chairs of publishing/distribution tools+networks mentioned above.

Looking at the problem at its most simplistic, there are two axes of differentiation:

  1. Content: you have unique ideas/perspective/experiences/skill
  2. Medium: you express your ideas/perspective/experiences/skill in a unique medium

Sounds like a “style vs substance” or “form over function.” — I told you it was simplistic! — but it got me thinking about publishing mediums in general.

I have been writing on this blog for 10 years, and have been blogging for nearly 20, and I came to it 10 years late! Blogging is a very mature medium and although the tools might improve, I think it is still a pretty recognizable form after all this time — like the novel or poetry.

Every day I am now using Roam as I work on my zettelkasten. Last year I was inspired by Andy Matuschak’s essay on transformative tools for thought. These are new ways to write==think. Andy’s published notes site is a very interesting way of putting that thinking online (I recommend clicking around and exploring it). I have been following Evgeny Morozov’s The Syllabus since the beginning (see this interview with De Correspondent to get what it is all about). Then there are things like Craig Mod’s companion site for his book Koya Bound. That’s just classic, cool webdesign.

These are certainly cool tools providing novel ways to interact with ideas/perspective/experiences/skill. But they don’t have the best thing that blogs had back in the day: community. I want to engage in a back-and-forth, to learn new ideas and improve my own. That was the best part of blogging in the early 2000s: meeting cool people online, and then meeting them in real life! I want to capture that feeling of blogging 20 years years, which had little to do with technology, and everything to do with the community.

In thinking about this, and looking to be inspired, I am on the hunt for innovative publications, magazines, blogs, etc that are firing people up: getting them engaged with more than just hitting a Like button. If you have any you want to share or plug, post below!

A better process for reading, writing, and thinking: zettelkasten

I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).

Chart showing number of books read per year.
Stats from Goodreads

So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.

A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.

Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.
Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.

But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).

My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…

The Getting Things Done for academics

There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.

So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

cover of the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.

From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.

Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”

Cartoon with two boxes: the left box is labelled "INFORMATION" and contains a number of randomly distributed dots. The right box is labelled "KNOWLEDGE" and has the same random distribution of dots, but this time each of the dots is connected to at least one other forming a "web of knowledge"
Source

The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.

I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.

If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).

Fear not the Blank White Page

Writing is how you complete your thoughts.

An excellent quote from a piece on writing by Drew Magary. He writes about how he keeps a notebook of as-yet unformed thoughts so he never starts with the dreaded Blank White Page. Once you have collected all that primordial material:

Then you get to catalog it, tinker with it, and puzzle it over.

This gets to the core why I prefer writing to live debate… as the thoughts in my brain pass to my mouth, they remain incomplete (malformed?). I prefer the reorganizing, the working out of all paths, the understanding myself to make it understandable to others. Drew quotes author George Saunders:

Writing is a matter of sketching and building and arranging and fixing what is in your brain.

Even take this blog. Most of the stuff I write here is half-formed. Some might call it anodyne or callow. To me blogging has always been about sparking a conversation, a small slip of litmus paper to be dipped into public discussion — the reaction leads to refinement (or outright refutation!) which is ultimately the desired result. The Blank White Page too does not require perfection. It is merely a piece of litmus paper, waiting for your experimental thoughts.

Read Drew’s full piece here →

What sucks about blogging and how to fix it

Andrew Sullivan’s ending of his 15 years of blogging has sparked discussion about the health of blogging in 2015. I started blogging in 2004, pre-Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. A friend and I created a group blog about foreign and current affairs. It was an auspicious time for blogging and I made many contacts and friends through the blog. At its height, we would post a few times a day, and had a decent amount of traffic. But things changed.

A few years later “blog networks” became a thing — think of Nick Denton’s Gawker network. The only way to collect on the so-called “digital dimes” was to gather together under a banner, pool audiences and centralize advertising (This has been recently happening in podcasting too). Later, news organizations started to blog. Blogosphere centralization started to set in. Professionalism of the writing (theoretically) increased, but the real number of independent bloggers began to fall (again, see podcasting).

Then social media happened.

I find blogging now to be a wholly different beast. Kottke says it is dead. It certainly has changed, mainly in terms of engagement.

For example, the media critiques I have produced recently received a fair bit of feedback… but none in the comments. All the engagement happened on Twitter and Google+ (lest we forget, I don’t use Facebook). Referring to Ben Thompson’s Social/Communications map below, engagement has gone symmetric.

Social communications map by Ben Thompson

This is a shame. On my media pieces, a lot of the feedback I got contributed to what I wrote. Rather than having a one-on-one communication with me, if the feedback had been posted as a comment on the original post, everyone would have benefitted.

The main difference between blogging then and blogging now is the disintermediation of engagement.

When you distribute your work out onto various social channels to “where your readers are”, they engage with you on those channels. RSS wasn’t interactive. Blog comments used to be a watering hole where everyone coalesced for group discussion. In the age of social media, this is no longer.

Vox co-founder Ezra Klein notes points out:

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own.

“[B]logging is a conversation,” says Klein, “and conversations don’t go viral.” Yet he is bullish on blogging, and talks about how both Vox and Gawker are “bringing back blogging” in 2015. I certainly have tried to up my output and blog more since late last year, so I am doing my part.

Okay, so old school blogging is a different modality. That’s fine. In the age of social media, how do we incentive the conversationality (even at the expense of virality)?

Novel commenting systems like what Medium uses, where comments are annotations, might be a solution. Inline comments are by definition in context. This makes comments on the post more valuable than their social media equivalents.

Another approach that I haven’t seen would be some sort of clipping service. Imagine a bookmarklet allowing a blogger to instantly send a social media post to the related blog post, appending it to the comments section. The blogger can harvest symmetric feedback, curating and aggregating the best commentary to the relevant post for the benefit of everyone.

The best solution may just be culture. Fred Wilson has no problem getting feedback on his blog. The comments section there is very lively. Using Disqus and social sign in certainly lowers the barrier to commenting on the page. But having a core group of commenters to show someone the ropes certainly helps. Like many things, the solution might be social rather than technological. From now on, when I get good feedback on social media, I intend to personally encourage those people to comment on the relevant post, and contribute to building that culture around my own blog.

To blog in 2015 like we did in 2005 takes a bit of strategy and audience education. The blogosphere now has to compete with social media. This is just another evolution of a web-native medium, and a sign of its maturity. Different is not dead.

English is the perfect language for preachers because it allows you to talk until you think of what to say.

Garrison Keillor [this also goes for marketers, pundits and bloggers]

Cookies — by Douglas Adams

This is one of my favourite little apocryphal stories. Text from here.


Cookies

by Douglas Adams

This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong.

I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table.

I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind.

Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase.

It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies.

You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know… But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought, nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, that settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie.

Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice …” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away.

Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies.

The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.

What I expect

This is too perfect in its entirety to simply publish a pullquote. Enjoy the whole thing and give Marco props.

marco:

My content will be stolen and republished in ways that violate my extremely permissive Creative Commons license. This will be done by both bots and humans. The bots will use my content to steal pennies from advertisers and time from people. Some of the humans won’t realize they’re doing anything wrong. The others think I won’t notice.

People will misquote, re-title, and edit my content to make it more sensational, at the expense of my credibility and their readers’ trust, in an effort to increase pageviews to their own site, like Business Insider, or increase their rank or reputation on someone else’s site, like Hacker News.

People will misread and misunderstand my content, usually because they’re inattentively skimming it for trigger phrases and concepts that confirm or inflame their own biases.

This will incite many of them to leave misguided, poorly written, ad-hominem comments on every site that republishes or links to my content. Most of the commenters will only read the (edited, sensationalized) title before commenting. They’ll insult my intelligence, call me names, tell me I suck, and refute arguments I didn’t make. Many of them will email these comments to me to make sure I see them.

But I still write.

Because amid all of the spam, fraud, and nastiness, people are reading what I write. Some even send positive feedback or valid counterarguments.

But most importantly, I’m freely expressing my ideas in public, which helps me clarify my thoughts, enhance and alter my views, and improve my writing over time.

I think I’m getting the better end of the deal.