What Is Publishing?

02/22/2011

It’s funny how definitions change. Some of us at Submishmash are old enough to remember when people weren’t sure whether or not websites like Salon could reasonably be referred to as “magazines.” For several years there, people said things like, “the David Foster Wallace interview on Salon dot com.” Now it’s obvious, isn’t it? Salon is a magazine. It always was.

The Atlantic was always a magazine, too. We didn’t have to wonder about them. Only, now it isn’t a magazine, really. Or rather, there’s the official magazine part of The Atlantic, which maybe has an audience of a few hundred thousand, which is printed on paper but also, now, available for free online. Then there are the blogs associated with The Atlantic, which seem to operate without much editorial oversight at all and which seem much more central to public discourse than the magazine. Andrew Sullivanalone seems a bigger presence in the world of writing and ideas than the magazine we call The Atlantic. Is The Atlantic a publisher simply because it writes the checks to Sullivan, or is Sullivan the publisher and The Atlantic an organization that happens to have a source of funding and a belief in publishing-related activities?

Is HTMLGIANT a publisher? What about longform.org? What if, say, you are a website who runs original animated shorts, posts MP3’s of vintage advertising jingles, and puts out collections of fine-art photography that can only be purchased as ebooks?

At Submishmash, of course, we aren’t in the business of drawing distinctions. We thought of ourselves originally as a tool for publishers and arts organizations. But even those words–“publisher,” “arts organization”–are starting to sound too restrictive. The more customers we’ve signed up, the more we’ve expanded our system to accommodate all file types and address all the curatorial needs we can imagine creative people might have.

The bottom line for us is: as much as we love print publishing, as much as we owe to the books and magazines of the past and present, it is clear that publishing can no longer be thought of as simply a process of replicating those books and magazines using electronic means. Sure, that might be one aspect of publishing, or of whatever we end up calling that activity that we have historically called publishing.

But the possibilities for content dissemination are dizzying right now, and they seem to be changing daily. Back when Salon first started publishing, there didn’t seem any reason to tinker with the conventional publishing process. Now there are few reasons not to.