Why Traditional Publishing Is Better Than Blogging

There's another round of "science blogs will make traditional journalism obsolete!" going on in connection with last week's World Conference of Science Journalists-- see Mad Mike, for example. This wouldn't be interesting except that it happened to collide with my reading Unscientific America, and it struck me that the book is, in many ways, one of the best arguments you could construct for the superiority of the traditional publishing process to doing everything with blogs.

As I said in my review of the book, there's really nothing in Unscientific America that will come as a surprise to anyone who has read Chris and Cheril's blog for the last few years. All the arguments they make, and all the examples they use have appeared on the blog at one time or another.

What's striking about the book, though, is how much more coherent and powerful the argument seems when the whole thing is laid out at once in the book. The final product benefits from being presented as a single whole, rather than drawn out over a series of posts spread over days and weeks, if not years. It has also clearly been honed in discussion with several people other than the authors, and edited in a way that you don't get online.

The end result is something vastly superior to anything you get on a blog. For one thing, it's much longer-- even Bora doesn't write 200-page blog posts (150, tops)-- but there's a benefit to being presented in a single, sustained argument that goes beyond the length. If you printed out the full run of The Intersection it would probably end up being longer than the book, but it would be a jumbled mess. You could piece together the same argument as the book, but the effort you would need to put in to do that would rob it of a lot of its power.

Blogging offers a lot of nice features, but it's not a replacement for a book. If you thing that the existing apparatus of conventional publishing-- editors, publishers, and all the rest-- is something that will inevitably be swept away by Web 2.0, compare the book to the blog. It's a nice way to see that there really is value added by the editing and publishing process.

(See also Heads in the Sand by Matt Yglesias, for which you can add "fixing all the goddamn typos" to the list of benefits provided by the conventional publishing process.)

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If you thing that ... It's a nice way to see that there really is value added by the editing and publishing process.

Yes. I thing that editing is a good think.

Ha! I may not write 200-page blog posts, but Orac does ;-)

Or, on those rare occasions when I do, it is about exactly this topic. It is a complex ecosystem out there and there is a place for every platform and every style and length.

Yes, but starting a wiki in order to put together a more coherent version of the ideas from the blog may have been equally effective. Blogging is not the only web publishing tool.

Of course, I realize that you still wouldn't get the benefits of the editorial process, but there is no real reason why this process could not be applied to a wiki instead of a book (apart from the ancient business model of publishing houses).

Chad, you seem to be saying that the assertion "traditional publishing is better than blogging" implies that blogging and other online news sources won't destroy traditional publishing. But better (in some value system) doesn't imply more economically viable. In some cases, it doesn't even come close - vacuum tube based radios were quite a bit better than transistor radios for many years, yet transistor radios wiped vacuum tubes out. Your assertion could easily be true, and yet have no relevance to the question of whether traditional publishing is in trouble.

Chad, you seem to be saying that the assertion "traditional publishing is better than blogging" implies that blogging and other online news sources won't destroy traditional publishing. But better (in some value system) doesn't imply more economically viable.

That's true. The question of whether traditional publishing adds value that you can't get from blogging is independent of the question of whether traditional publishing is economically viable. The two problems are not dependent on one another, though they're usually linked in discussions of these issues.

My post was mostly a response to those who look at the economic woes of the publishing industry and say "Oh, big deal. Blogs/ wikis/ Web-2.0-gizmo-of-the-moment will replace the whole thing, no problem." I'm saying that there are things that you get from the traditional book format that are not currently duplicated in any of the social-media technologies now operating. In particular, the web-based media of the present moment don't really provide for the refinement of sustained, book-length arguments about substantial topics.

Given that, the economic situation of traditional publishing takes on a very different slant, and is a cause for concern. If the traditional book goes the way of the eight-track tape, something real and, in my opinion, valuable will be lost, unless some way is found to replace it in the brave new webby world.

Chad, I think I commented on this in a previous one of your blogs, but you are still raising arguments I find unconvincing! So let me apologize in advance for the length of this comment. I hope it gets thru your filters and passes your approval (after a fashion!).

There are problems with the traditional publishing process. The first of these is that it's in the hands of the few, the risk-averse, the overwhelmed, the biased, (the rich?).

People are not going to put up with that in this age of self-publishing. People in general are going to take the path of least resistance, and whilst this will inevitably lead (and has unarguably led) to much trash, there are many gems to be found online. People aren't going to be held captive by others, or give away control over their desires to others if they can side-step it.

So the traditional system is going to die a long, slow and perhaps painful death. You know it is. Books are inevitably going to go "Forward to the Future" (to riff off an old movie trilogy). We're going to see them revert to being the domain of the wealthy and the collector, rare and expensive objects of veneration. It's inevitable. Books will go the way of the analog disc, the VHS tape, the celluloid film.

Secondly, I don't buy your arguments! (Like you care, right?!). But seriously, I think you could make better arguments - like, for example, people don't benefit financially from a blog as they (hopefully) do from a book, and people perhaps don't garner the same sense of achievement, pride, and celebrity in a blog as they might from a trad. book.

But there are also some serious cons regarding books: you can't immediately update a book like you can an online work. The trad. book could well be out of date as soon as it's published. This applies even to fiction, but it applies all-the-more to non-fiction.

You cannot link to a book like you can to an online work, which means your readership is significantly reduced in perhaps important ways. Your readership may also be delayed - people may wait to buy your book used if they cannot afford to buy it new. Online, they can get it fresh. Unless, of course, the book is sold as a book online, in which case it can be inexplicably almost as expensive to buy as if it were printed traditionally!

But your first argument that the book lays out the argument completely, coherently, contemporaneously, chiseled and channeled (great alliteration, huh?) isn't a very good one. There's no reason whatsoever why a web site - even a blog - couldn't present this same thing.

You could write your book and when it's done, post all of the chapters on your blog at once. How is this any different from writing a book and publishing it all at once?

You could have honed your arguments as you wrote just as with a trad. book. You could have consulted others as you wrote. You could have received editing advice as you wrote. It's the same process right up until you either post the completed work online or you send it to be published. I see no difference.

Once published in either format, it's the same book. It's just as long online as it is published. It has just as many words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. It has the same footnotes/end notes (except that they're simply easier for the reader to track online than on a printed page). It can have an index and a glossary (although you sci-bloggers seem lamentably loathe to create such things!).

I don't see why length is necessarily a plus. It can be a minus, but your argument that books are longer than blogs is not a law of physics, Chad. Neither is your promotion of the 'single, sustained argument'. Why can't people post single, sustained arguments in blogs? Exactly! They can. The fact that people may use blogs differently from a book doesn't mean they cannot be used the same way. Blog writing doesn't have to be a "jumbled mess" (is this a comment on you or your sci-blings?!!)

I think the problem with sci-blogs - ironically! - is that you guys treat your blogs (or are perhaps compelled to treat them) as traditional publishing!

Once you blog, it's frozen. You never change it - except in that you might add a PS at the bottom. If you significantly update it, you leave the original untouched and post a new blog - which is why it can be a jumbled mess. If you delete something, it's not really deleted - it's X'd out but you can still see it - another reason it's a potentially jumbled mess.

The online world is very different from the offline world, but that doesn't mean that we cannot approach it in a traditional - but state-of-the-art - way for many uses.