The content machine: an outline of Michael Bhaskar’s theory of publishing

The content machine: towards a theory of publishing from the printing press to the digital network by Michael Bhaskar (Anthem Press, 2013) comprises, in effect, two essays. One is a reflection on the impact of digitisation on publishing. The other is an attempt to construct a theory of publishing.

Since I can’t find any strong link between the two and since the former strikes me as unoriginal, this review will focus on the latter.

Bhaskar’s theory is designed to identify publishing’s defining characteristics. I think really I should ‘book publishing’, rather than just ‘publishing’, though Bhaskar does discuss publishing beyond book publishing and, whilst reading the book, I wasn’t always certain where the focus was exclusively on book publishing and where it wider than that.

According to Bhaskar (though the pseudo-algebraic presentation is my own):

p = fr+ m + fi + a

where p stands for publishing, fr for frames, m for models, fi for filtering and a for amplification. 

Frames are ‘distributional and presentational mechanisms for content plus their attendant and subjectively experienced modes’. Thus the term is very elastic: it stretches from such things as format and book design to wider, contextual, matters such as the publisher’s brand and the way the book is marketed.

Models are ‘a sine qua non for the production and framing of content. Models are abstract extrapolations, which they guide our actions’. Evidently they include, but cannot be reduced to, business models. ‘Communication models are also relevant’.

Filtering entails selection. ‘If there is no element of filtering whatsoever, we have a medium.’ Bhaskar prefers ‘filtering’ to ‘selection’: the former is ‘more inclusive’; the latter ‘doesn’t give us enough space’. Filtering ‘implies a wider set of possible conditions of agency..and more possible publishing methods’. I should say I’m not very clear what this distinction means and I even wonder whether Bhaskar himself is, since rather than discard the term ‘selection’ he continues to use it alongside ‘filtering’. Perhaps ‘selection’ refers to consideration of items for publication on a case-by-case basis and ‘filtering’ allows for looser methods — but I’m not certain.

Amplification refers to ‘acting so that more copies of a work are distributed or consumed’. 

The above post outlines what Bhaskar’s theory consists of. My next post will critically assess the theory.


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