Book Review: Michael Bhaskar. The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network

“Above all,” argues Michael Bhaskar, “creating the New Publisher and meeting the digital challenge is not a business problem but a conceptual one” (ch. 6). As this claim and as the book’s subtitle suggest, The Content Machine ambitiously sets out to offer a kind of prolegomenon to a “theory of publishing” and to offer some hints about what to expect from the publisher of the future. As someone very much in the middle of university press practice, I’m initially excited by and skeptical about the ambition here. After all, publishing is a fairly old, complicated activity, which is notoriously idiosyncratic and context-bound, with a history of immunity to tidy explanations. A theory of publishing seems ever prone to over-simplicity (and alignment with a certain set of circumstances) or over-complication (and generalization to the point of little practical use). In other words, I was set up to be hard on this book. The Content Machine surprises me, however, in its sophisticated approach to what most interested readers would agree is an exceptionally daunting task. The book is detail-rich but capacious in its selection of examples and its synthesis of what the author argues are the essential elements tying together publishing circumstances that many might consider discrete or incompatible.