The content machine revisited: a critique of Michael Bhaskar’s theory of publishing

My previous post outlines the theory of publishing proposed by Michael Bhaskar in The content machine (Anthem, 2013). According to Bhaskar publishing consists of four phenomena: frames, models, filtering, and amplification.

Here I wish to assess the theory.

Essentially I think Bhaskar’s attempt is a good one. It does pretty well at getting to the core of publishing and it does so in terms that are flexible enough to accommodate a variety of historical forms.

I’ve already posted (22 October) on why I like the concept of ‘frames’.

Yet I have some reservations.

First, I found the definition of ‘models’ fuzzy. This weakens the theory because it makes it difficult or impossible to test. The danger lies in the elasticity of the term: if ‘model’ can be stretched to include everything that is (a) constitutive of publishing but (b) not included by the other three terms, the theory becomes true by tautology and thus tells us nothing new. For the theory to become rigorous, Bhaskar needs to clarify where the concept of ‘model’ begins and where it ends. 

Second, I don’t think publishing necessarily entails amplification. The main exception is contract publishing. I met a man once who published bespoke editions of the English Hymnal for independent schools. Each school wanted some editions — for example, inclusion of the school song. Each year he ascertained the number of new pupils, printed the requisite number, and delivered them to the schools. Not much amplification there! — but it’s still publishing.

Third, some specification of content is required, otherwise all kinds of other businesses would count as publishers. For example, I work with a technology development company called Archipelago. It’s very much in the business of frames, models, filtering, and amplification, especially in the area of inkjet printing. But it isn’t a publisher. We need to qualify the content of publishing with a term such as ‘semantic’.

Fourth, I’m not sure that the theory captures editing in all its forms. Commissioning and acquisitions comes under ‘filtering’. But what about development editing and copy-editing? Perhaps they come under ‘frames’, though somehow I don’t feel persuaded. Or perhaps they (also) come under ‘models’ — the problem there is that, as I say above, the concept is at present too fuzzy to be sure.

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