The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network

M Bashkar, Anthem Press, 226pp, 2013, £13.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 85728 111 1

Reviewed by Alison Shakspeare

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The Content Machine is a meaty read for anyone interested in an overview of the publishing world. We are presented with a fascinating history of publishing in its widest sense, with examples from China to the Netherlands, from d'Alembert's Encylopédie to the world's Wikipedia; covering 'publications' from clay tablets to digital blogs. So wide-ranging are the examples Michael Bashkar presents us with that, should a reader want to develop any particular thread, the 15-page bibliography is bound to point the way.

This tome is one chapter in Bashkar's stated aim of developing a theory of publishing for the digital age based around a 'modelling–filtering–framing–amplifying view of publishing'. It can sometimes feel as though we are watching a giant octopus being pushed into a box, but it is a treat to be presented with a coherent picture of the recurring threads that underlie each new development in publishing. He asks us to adapt our vocabulary in order to use past experience for future adaptation: for instance, say 'content' so you can think beyond words or books; say 'framing' so you describe in the widest possible terms ways of packaging your content; use 'amplifying' to add the notion of harnessing attention to the solid action of distribution in a world that deals in both profit and not-for-profit information.

In preparing for this review I found myself highlighting quote after quotable quote illustrating preconceptions and how Bashkar addresses them, descriptions of how publishers have and should view their role and future, about business and copyright, creativity and religion, theory and practicality, people and systems. Now and again there was an itch to get the marker out for the occasional typo and neglected footnote – inevitably.

This is a read-right-through not a dip-in-and-out book, and you might occasionally need a dictionary. The Content Machine doesn't lay out one way forward but it certainly offers plenty of grounds for optimism in the future of publishers and publishing – sorry, content and reimagining.

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