The Bookends

IN WHICH WE FIND PUBLISHING AS AN INDUSTRY WAS ALWAYS ONE BIG CRISIS, NOT A GOLDEN ERA ENDED BY THE RISE OF THE INTERNET, AND THAT THE AUTHOR’S ASPIRATIONS, LIKE HUMAN NATURE, HAVEN’T CHANGED. PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION PROCESSES AND TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED. THE RESULT IS NOT A CRISIS OF PUBLISHING, BUT THE CRISIS OF AN ORDER ESTABLISHED OVER THE LAST 500 YEARS, AS PUBLISHING ROLLS FORWARD, REACHING NEW HEIGHTS.

Inexpensive, well-made and authoritative books let readers “converse freely with the glorious dead.”—Aldus Manutius[i]

“At the new user-driven fundraising site KickStarter, a group of 100 strangers chipped in $30 apiece to self-publish a 100 page book–one page for each contributor.”—Galley Cat Blog, MediaBistro.com, June 2, 2009

Writing is solitary business. Publishing has always been a collective effort that blends authorship, financing, design, printing, packaging, marketing and sales to produce the rare breakout hit, it’s a process that has been simplified by technology without conceding simple answers to the question of how to achieve a profit. The evolution of publishing is laid clear in the story of two books, one that ended the era of incunabula, the first 50 years of print, and another that fulfilled the self-publishing dream in the first decade of the 21st Century.They are the bookends of the paper-publishing era. Neither is a great work that will be assigned in literature or theology classes for centuries after its publication, nor are they particularly well written, but their successes mirror one another and tell a great deal about how publishing has changed and will change, as well as what publishing skills will remain vibrant with the rise of new technology and the reinvention of publishing society beginning in our time.

hypnerotomachiaFra Francesco Colonna was a Dominican friar, the anonymous author of the bizarre and erotic antiquarian romantic fantasy Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Published on the eve of the 15th century in Republic of Venice, the book has become one of the most valuable printed works in the world.  Five hundred and six years later, William P. Young, a church-going salesman and motel night clerk from Boring, Oregon, penned a Christian psychodrama, The Shack, that started out as a photocopied work shared by his friends but found a market online, selling 3.8 million print and e-book copies by January 2009[ii], climbing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for dozens of weeks[iii] on the strength of Internet “word-of-mouth” endorsements by thousands of readers.

A monk writing in Treviso, Italy, in the 1460s didn’t dream of being published, because there were no publishers. The process and business norms authors and readers take for granted today would take hundreds of years to mature. As Francesco Colonna took up his quill, there were perhaps 50 to 70 printing presses in the world. He could not have dreamed that his allegorical love story would reach print and become “the most famous published work or all time.”[iv] Hynerotomachia Poliphili, as it came to be printed, included erotic images strikingly out of the 15th century mainstream. Colonna must have feared its publication would cost him his place in the church, should he be discovered its author. He would never make any money from the work. His publisher would lose money. Yet, the product of those labors made a work of real art. An early edition Hypnerotomachia recently sold at auction, in a depressed market, for $22,543.[v]

Half a millennium later, a salesman and part-time Web developer living in suburban Portland, Oregon, in 2005 would have little hope of being published by a major publishing house, because the process of getting a book into print had become so hardened, involving byzantine networks of author’s agents, editorial relationships, publisher projections that rule the risks taken each season. The sheer distance a Christian title must traverse to make The New York Times’ paperback fiction bestseller list, a general book category, is as daunting as the chances of publication of the Hypnerotomachia when it was written. Once he started thinking of publishing his photocopied book, what William P. Young found was that he didn’t need, but could leverage, the publishing industry to get his book to sell a million more copies than did the best-selling novel of 2000, John Grisham’s The Brethren. The Internet combined with some sales and marketing inspiration let him bypass an established industry, setting an example that hundreds of thousands of publishers are following.

Book publishing is becoming an industry where the title born in the grassroots can challenge books from major publishing houses. The typewriter, acting as a hindrance to producing a clean-looking manuscript, acted as a stopcock on the flow of books written in the 20th century; as self-correcting typewriters appeared, more manuscripts were submitted. Now, everyone wants to publish and can.

In 2008, the number of short-run and on-demand printed titles, the domain of self-publishers, surpassed the number of traditionally published titles for the first time, according to Bowker’s Books In Print, which surveys more than 75,000 publishers[vi]. Publishing changed with that statistic: small publishers and individual authors do reach readers, sell books and, perhaps, make a small fortune. Young’s The Shack was just the most successful of a new breed of book title that has contributed to doubling the number of books printed annually during the past decade.

In the midst of all this change and the dramatic increase in volume of books published, the publishing industry has declared a crisis. Publishers cannot sift through the ever-increasing flow of manuscripts produced by computer-using authors to find gems in a timeframe that makes them competitive. Editors are being laid off, imprints are closing, and major publishers are turning to the self-publishing market to identify break-out hits, the authors of which are rewarded with large advances, sometime after enduring dozens or hundreds of rejection letters before their book caught fire in the word-of-mouth marketplace. At a time when “there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them”[vii] the publishing companies’ business models, production processes and value propositions to authors, book distributors and booksellers are collapsing.

Once books make the transition to digital form, they will no longer be what we refer to when pointing at the library or shelves in our homes. Printed books will endure, though purchased far less often so that, eventually, they will strike people like calligraphic diplomas and wedding invitations do, displayed as an ornament of the reader’s intellectual life. Printed books will be an important element in readers’ memorializing of ideas while the actual conveyance of culture continues over networks at light speed.

New reading “platforms” are proliferating, from desktop e-book reading applications that provide readers access to hundreds of thousands of titles scanned from the world’s top university libraries by Google, Amazon’s Kindle reader, which touts its library of almost 300,000 titles, to millions of self-published books, articles and pamphlets distributed via the Web that can be read using a browser, Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Word. There’s a battle for supremacy in portable e-book readers, which Amazon’s Kindle now dominates, at least in terms of buzz.

However, the real question for all concerned is, what will ensure that these books will be readable in 2019, 2029 or 2129? We can still read old books centuries after they were printed. That made them a sound purchase then and now, while digital documents can quickly become obsolete, losing their value because they are unreadable. Investments by authors or publishers in publishing a title in the market must comply with the essential rule of media, that a product be infinitely (or very nearly so) resalable once created at a minimum cost to serve new markets. Perhaps the entire system is broken and the copyrighted book, photograph or article will disappear, but there are still many ways for creative work to thrive, as this book will explore.

Today’s battles are so much noise in the signal that is history. One thing is certain: The evolution of books is only beginning. Alan Kay, one of the great early innovators in desktop computing, has said that the tech industry continually reinvents the flat tire. You might be able to understand what to do with a flat tire, if it weren’t flat, but you can’t get anywhere without a patch. An e-book will not stand on its own, yet, because it is dependent upon software and/or hardware the reader is using, as well as the buyer’s tolerance for the shortcomings of current technology. E-books are less than paper books, offering less flexibility in use, from annotation to sharing and lending of books to the awkward navigational experience of flipping between pages with an e-book. Making sense of press releases and product announcements is guesswork, a distraction from the real problem of identifying new aspects of the reading experience that will become commonplace, expected when we talk of “books.” For now, we have flat tires and a road full of nails.

Cognitive scientist and philosopher George Lakoff also has useful advice for explorers into the murky future of the book. Lakoff explains that many political messages fail to communicate their intended ideas to recipients, because members of the audience have cognitive frames that shape the words they hear[viii]. Liberal and conservatives hear different meanings for key words in the political debate, just as book people and tech people do when talking about the future of books. Even when they use the same words, they are saying different things. Each group is committed to their take on the word “book.” It is the elephant that appears in the room whenever it is spoken, crushing alternative concepts that might take shape. Book people have one set of ideas about quality in a book, technologists another that is concerned with making pages readable.

The term “e-book” is a flat tire that gets flatter every time the elephant climbs aboard. While there will be books in the future, they won’t be just the books we think of today any more than the collection of scrolls that made up the book by Aristotle called Politics. We would not describe those scrolls—the artifacts—as “a book,” yet that is what we refer to the text of Politics as, all the time.

The Oxford English Dictionary devotes four full pages to definitions of “book,” all of it a burden to thinking beyond our current experience, and every one of those definitions important to the continuity that will ultimately be recognized as part of the history of books when we are dead and this change long accepted. It is our task, as publishers, authors, critics and readers to confront the elephantine ideal and look beyond it.

To date, e-books and e-book reader hardware, including the latest generation of the Amazon Kindle and Sony’s Reader devices, have challenged buyers with many limitations and lack of features that characterize the printed book. They don’t make it easy to see further than the accomplishment of making words appear on a screen. For instance, one cannot pass along an e-book they finished reading to another person unless they have access to a single shared online book account, nor can they make bookmarks and notes in the margins of an e-book and share them with anyone other than themselves. In so many ways, the e-book market remains an attempt to sell readers on a better flat tire.

The answers to questions about the future of the book will make themselves plainly known only in retrospect, when we are taking newly invented useful “books” for granted. To a great degree they will be unrecognizable and strikingly similar to generations raised on paper books. There hasn’t been a more exciting time to be interested in the future of ideas than today. Right now, you live in interesting times, which carries the price of enduring cursed confusion.

Hardware and software will come and go, but the book—a collection of knowledge or entertainment, scholarship or titillation—will go on, just as the spoken words of Homer did. The scroll and codex familiar to Aristotle and St. Jerome were books and are still referred to as books, along with the manuscripts that now make up The Bible, the Torah or The Koran. Humans make book artifacts in whatever form they can or, from the economic perspective, whatever sells best. Now, something new is coming. The form our answers will take can be seen in the contrasts of history, in the strange journey from Fra Colonna to The Shack.

Continued here.


[i] Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading, Penguin Books, New York, 1997. Page 136.

[ii] “William P. Young’s Cinderella Story,” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Writers Digest, January 13, 2009. Web: http://www.writersdigest.com/article/william-p-young/

[iii] “Christian Novel Is Surprise Best Seller,” by Motoko Rich, The New York Times, June 24, 2008. Web: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/books/24shack.html

[iv] Martin, Henri-Jean, “The History and Power of Writing,” translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1994. P. 321

[v] Christie’s Lot 87, Sale 5528, November 25, 2008. http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5151895

[vi] Milliot, Jim, “Number of On-demand Titles Topped Traditional Books in 2008,” Publishers Weekly, May 19, 2009. Web: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6659193.html

[vii] Rich, Motoko, “Self-Publishers Thrive as Writers Pay the Tab,” The New York Times, January 27, 2009, Web: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28selfpub.html?scp=1&sq=publishing+crisis&st=nyt

[viii] See George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think

About Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he’s published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.

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