February 27

Digital publishing: your writing, brought to life with videos, photos, and music

We’re on the cusp of re-inventing academic and non-fiction writing. Imagine your writing project, infused with videos of interviews, photos of your fieldwork, music from the people you study. This could be academic writing truly come to life.

What if academic writing didn’t have to look the way it always has?

The only academic writing we know is the style of writing that has been constrained by physical printing presses. We limit articles at 20-40 pages and monographs at 80-300 pages, expecting mostly text and only few pictures, because our printing presses churn out articles and books most efficiently that way.

But what if we weren’t using printing presses? When we open academic and non-fiction writing up to digital publishing, what can we make possible?

Digital publishing is here and growing, whether or not we’re ready.

Scholarly journals are almost entirely digital, and they probably won’t print any physical journals five years from now. (Except maybe a few for Harvard’s library.)

Mainstream books are rapidly becoming digital. Yes, we’ll print books for a long time still, but audiences – even academic audiences – will soon request digital options.

Textbooks are already on their way to incorporating multi-media. At the American Sociological Association conference this last summer, I stopped to talk with some of the e-textbook publishers and watched their demonstrations. I have to tell you – e-textbooks are amazing!

We’re about to see a revolution in digital publishing, and these innovations can apply to any length of writing, from blog posts and scholarly articles to books and textbooks. Instead of focusing on what we might lose in the transition, I’d like to think about some of the ways that digital publishing just might be awesome for non-fiction authors.

Ethnography that includes audio interviews and video field notes.

In the old style, you have to do your best to convey your interview material in a compelling way.

But what if you could include audio or video clips of actual interviews? The reader could hear their voices, see their faces, filled with emotion, hear their excitement and passion and conviction, just the way you did when you interviewed them.

In the old style, you have to spend pages and pages, describing the scene of your field, never quite sure whether your reader will really be able to envision the dust of the floors in Nicaragua or the piles of garbage in India.

What if you could include short movies that introduce your field to the reader? Imagine a short 3-5 minute video, in which you take your camera out into your own field, and show the reader exactly how the field looks and feels.

Classroom textbooks that are completely customizable.

You know all those visual images and videos that you search for to show in class? With e-books, you can embed them in the e-textbook itself, so students can look at them at home before or after class.

You’ll be able to take chapters from different books and combine them into one e-textbook. No more photocopying – can you even imagine such a heavenly place that doesn’t require a photocopier? And students who mysteriously lost their handouts? Check your e-textbook, I uploaded them last week!

Blogs conversations that are deep, rich, and nearly instant.

I like to think that in the old days, academics and thinkers would sit around a coffee shop table and discuss ideas at length, arguing, building on ideas, and inspiring each other.

Doesn’t happen so much any more. Being an academic can feel terribly isolated. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one who cares about your research topic.

But imagine a blogging community of academics, who live all around the world but passionately care about the same research. One posts an article about a research question, then another comments on the blog or writes a response blog, and others chime in. There can be an entire conversation that happens around a highly specific research topic that includes thinkers who might never have been able to meet in one location before. It’s happening now, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

What does digital publishing make possible?

When we start to consider all that will become possible with digital publishing, I think we’ll wonder how we ever communicated our ideas fully with only printed words in a book.

Can you imagine a scholarly article with embedded video interviews? Photos? Music? http://ctt.ec/i0edQ+ (Tweet that to start a conversation about digital publishing possibilities!)

Of course, I’m a big believer in the power of words, and I own more paperback books than e-books, but I’m excited to explore these possibilities. In fact, I’ll be keeping my eye out for the latest innovations in e-writing to share here on the blog.

How you could use digital publishing to bring your own writing to life in a way you never thought would be possible? Leave a comment below – maybe you'll inspire someone else!


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