We here at Rebus are often asked what it is we do, both as individuals and as an organization. Sometimes, depending on the context, we find ourselves stretching to find the right combination of words—non-profit, web-based platforms, tools for academics, digital texts, collaboration. A common perception is that Rebus is a publisher, given that we help people make and find and use books, after all. And our common response is often: No, we’re not really a publisher.
But then, in many ways, that’s exactly what we are.
The problem is that there’s a lot of baggage around that term, largely because of the way that many in the publishing industry have created control mechanisms and profitability requirements around their products. And Rebus, through all of our initiatives, is about opening up access to what is produced, so that the whole ecosystem benefits.
Our central driver is to make things public.
We want our platforms to be accessible and exciting for the public. We want the books our community creates to be shared and used and adapted in the public sphere. We want printed versions of these books to be available to the public who wants them. We want digital texts, without restrictive rights management wrapped around them, to be publicly used and remixed and turned into great new pieces of thinking and writing—for the public good. We want ideas and dreams about open knowledge to become a public norm, an expectation even.
In that sense, Rebus is very much a publisher. We strive for a world in which things are public. At the same time, we are part of a larger socio-economic ecosystem, an ecosystem that includes proprietary knowledge and products, systems of financial exchange, and forces that tend to leverage the rhetorical value of ‘public’ towards privatized outcomes. For that reason we have walked a fine line between publisher and not-publisher.
Are we already a publisher?
Over the past year, Rebus has been going through some subtle internal changes. Our best-known initiative to date, Rebus Community, is entering a new phase of technological and organizational maturity. In the next few months, we will offer a professional development package that creates a supportive learning environment, in complement to our online platform. Alongside this, people can continue to use our infrastructure to produce beautiful, high-quality open textbooks. Rebus Community as publisher? Yes, in many senses.
Meanwhile, development continues apace on Rebus Ink, a digital platform for reading and research. By November we will have launched the beta version of this web application, one that lets scholars collect and read and annotate and cite, and then go on to construct the arguments and written outputs that are central to academic life. Rebus Ink as a part of scholarly publishing? Why not?
And finally, Rebus Foundation, the branch of our organization that facilitates the generous funding we have received from the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations. In the new framing of Rebus, the Foundation expands it role, becoming an advocate and a champion, a generator of ideas, and an engine that supports the broader ecosystem. Rebus Foundation, publishing scaffold? Yes, absolutely, as we strive to make openness a normative direction for our world, and even more of a publicly held value.
Freely flying our flag.
In many of our personal lives, we resist being cast in roles that don’t quite fit. We struggle against the outside world’s labels and perceptions; we rail against being categorized and limited. Then, after spending a while reflecting and coming to understand who we really are, we may accept a given label. We might even take it on wholeheartedly, and use the momentum and history in that word to redefine it, and open it up to new understandings. We become comfortable in our skin, even as we evolve and grow.
Hello, world. We’re Rebus, a new kind of publisher for a new kind of public. Nice to meet you.