The Bookends, Pt. III

….continued from previous entry

When William P. Young wrote The Shack in 2005, he intended it as a Christmas present to his friends and family. Unlike Fra Franceso Colonna, he didn’t have to consider the challenge of getting copies made, because he had Kinko’s to duplicate and spiral bind the book before his personal release deadline, December 25th. The publishing world at that late date, on the verge of a crisis, missed one of the biggest best sellers of the decade because the author no longer needs a printer or marketers to take the first steps to winning readers.

Young’s book, the story of a man who, after losing a daughter in a grisly murder, receives a note from God asking the grieving father to join the Holy Trinity for a weekend in the shack where the little girl was killed, has struck a chord with a wide range of people, capitalizing—albeit unintentionally—on the increasing dissatisfaction some Christians feel toward even Protestant church hierarchies and a general sense of victimization in American society. But as Young has said in interviews, it is a work of fiction, not theology, and the attacks on the book as “heresy,” which have come from some quarters of the evangelical community, because The Shack challenges fundamentalist assumptions about Judgment Day and the value of acts of faith based on Biblical rules, such as the Ten Commandments, only helped sell the entertainment as a theologically challenging read.

Young makes up his theological universe with the same creative license Colonna did his portmanteau Italian. God is portrayed as a stout black woman named “Papa,” with Christ turned into a wood-shaving covered Semitic carpenter with a big nose, and presenting the Holy Ghost as an Asian woman, Sarayu, who glows and levitates when speaking. He told The New York Times that he recast the Trinity in order to shake readers’ preconceptions about God: “I don’t believe that God is Gandalf with an attitude or Zeus who wants to blast you with any imperfection that you exhibit.” Young is no theologian, nor a great writer. His reasoning, in the mouth of the Holy Ghost, runs along the lines of Sophistic and Stoical cliché: “Mack, if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” However, the questioning of church hierarchy and recasting of dogmatic rules, laying heavy emphasis on the suffering and faith of the individual, make The Shack feel like a mainline injection of Martin Luther’s preaching, if Luther had had a sense of humor and the worldview of a 21st century Oregonian grief counseling program facilitator.

Like Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, The Shack mines deeply a shaft of a slice of popular culture—though the cultures are very different—and pleases a particular audience with its offbeat approach to faith, love and pleasure. The difference now, of course, is that billions of people can read, not just the Latinate friars whose attention Colonna hoped to entice away from the works of St. Jerome, and books are cheap and easy to make and distribute.

The Shack’s publisher, Windblown Media, launched by Young and two friends, claims to have sold more than 3.8 million copies of the book. As a phenomenon of “word-of-mouth” or “viral” sales, The Shack is unprecedented, growing from 15 copies shared among friends and reproduced for friends of friends, into a self-published book sold to 1,000 people who listened to a Christian podcast hosted by former pastors Brad Cummings and Wayne Jacobsen, who became the publishers of The Shack.

But, wait. There is a gap in the story of overnight success, as there always is in such tales, between that first photocopied version of The Shack in 2005 and its multi-million-selling arrival in 2008. Young and his publishers took an Aldine path for almost two years, collecting feedback from early readers and rewriting the book four times before launching their main marketing thrust in the early summer of 2007. He began by emailing the manuscript to the only author he knew.

“We learned a lot from the feedback. In sixteen months, there were four major revisions,” Young told WritersNewsWeekly.com in September 2008. “I was very open to conversation about the book.”[i] Among the three partners in Windblown Media, only Wayne Jacobsen had published a book before, and he took up the editor’s role as The Shack moved from photocopied gift to finished printed product. He was the author of several books about Christian faith, including So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, which addressed the same dissatisfaction with church hierarchy and pew politics as The Shack does. It was only after all the rewriting that the Young and his partners decided in early 2007 to invest about $300 in marketing their book. The Shack caught fire, selling 22,000 copies in 60 days, another 33,000 in the following 30 days—an increase in sales of 300 percent—before hitting the bestseller lists in the summer of 2008.[ii]

The conversation with readers reshaped the story and, by including so much interaction with a burgeoning community, created a legion of advocates—what marketers call “influencers”—for the final version of The Shack when it was released. That conversation was essential to The Shack’s success, although it is obvious only in retrospect, and this is something new, even though every author seeks feedback somewhere. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, publishers following the Aldine tradition contributed extensively to polishing an author’s work before publication. After taking on the economic risk of publishing, their main concern was to help prepare the manuscript so that it pleased readers and satisfied critical reviewers who wielded influence over book choices. Great editors built reputations on their ability to turn mediocre prose into great writing, so much so that many authors spend their lives seeking a publishing relationship that they hope will turn their work to gold that they never get around to writing their first manuscript. Now, publishers cannot sift through the mountains of submissions they receive and have outsourced much of the qualification process to literary agents, who reduce the number of choices by culling down the manuscripts they receive to a selection they believe an editor at a publishing house might find interesting, and still, most of these manuscripts are never considered because the publisher’s ability to develop, market and support books has not increased substantially in response to technology. Instead, the cost of keeping up with technology adds to the cost of investing in a book to begin with, and publishers have struggled to find and cultivate new authors and book concepts, opting to reinvest in established writers and “proven” concepts.

Michael Pietsch, Publisher at Little, Brown, a division of the Hachette Book Group, told Harper’s Magazine writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus that the Frankfurt Book Fair, an annual gathering of publishers and booksellers from around the world that has taken place in Frankfurt Germany since the 12th century, has become a place where, in essence, new ideas are discouraged and editor’s intuitions are confirmed by acclamation:

He says that publishing is an industry founded on dissatisfaction. “There is a rich loam of disappointment.” He reconsiders. “It’s an industry built on the rich soil of disappointment.” He ultimately goes with “loam.” One can readily imagine this man actually editing, doing his part to help make those loam/soil calls. “Three out of ten books make money,” he says. He makes sure I understand that this means seven out of ten books do not. “Most of the time a book never reaches the standards its writer, editor, and publisher have imagined for it. I tell writers not to come to Frankfurt,” he says. “This is all about the commodification {sic} of books. It’s a writer’s version of hell.”

Having attended the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of times, I would say it is more like a writer’s version of Dante’s Inferno. Circles of prosperity and influence are clearly marked in the organization of the exhibition, which takes place in multiple buildings in a vast trade show facility. Near the center are books and publishers hawking titles for the massive U.S. market and its English-speaking relations. Next, German titles, as this is a German event, even though the polyglot European market dwarves the German-speaking market, followed by France and England, which receives pride of place separate from the Americans, then, at the outer reaches of this Hell, myriad clusters of publishers of other languages. Asia has gained in importance at Frankfurt in recent years, though Asian publishers have fairs each year in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Calcutta. The Book Expo America, formerly known as the American Booksellers Association exposition, meets annually in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago on a rotating basis, rivals Frankfurt, but lacks the truly global features of the German event. After languages, come ranks of book genres, a kind of sub-circle that organizes the penitents for special tortures. My active attendance at Frankfurt in the mid-1990s revolved around early interactive book publishing trends, and the “interactive” hall back then was a shared space with, if it can be summed up in a phrase, the Eastern European Coffee Table Book exhibits. E-books had to spend many years up to its nose in crap to earn the respect of publishers. Interactive is bigger now, though more deeply integrated into the displays of genres and languages, so it no longer stands in a separate hell.

All this is to say that the Frankfurt Book Fair is incredibly crowded with people selling things or seeking to find out what to buy in order to make the most money in the coming year. A herd mentality reigns, one of cattle that are self-importantly self-selected. These crowds seek the most recognizable brands and faces, especially celebrity publishers, who are quick to endorse trends and titles in which they have invested. Not surprisingly, they tend to look to others who have succeeded when making those choices. Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports in Harper’s Magazine that at the 2009 fair, where he appears to have stalked The New York Times’ Motoko Rich to get an insider’s view of the event, Frankfurt was abuzz about vampires. Vampires are a sure bet, based on the resounding success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the first volume of which was published as a paperback in 2005, which, after it proved successful, was upgraded to a hardcover edition in 2006. Four years later, vampires are hot. Or, at least, they are safe, like the good vampires in Meyer’s books, who are vegetarians.

Frankfurt isn’t where publishers can expect to find their hunches confirmed anymore, the Internet is where the action is. Religious books did not sell well during 2008, revenue for the segment fell four percent to $2.13 billion, according to the Book Industry Study Group, as The Shack wracked up sales.[iii] Total sales for The Shack haven’t been disclosed, but by extrapolating from Windblown Media’s announced numbers, and assuming that the book has been deeply discounted from its $14 list price to an average of $9.00 per copy for trade paperbacks and $16 for hardcover editions, it has generated sales in the range of $48 million to $65 million, depending on the split of sales between the two editions, between three percent and four percent of the total religious book market revenues in 2008. In other words, major publishers missed the chance to publish a book with sales that singlehandedly offset the overall decline in sales of religious books the year it dominated the best-seller lists. That is a huge miss.

Lewis-Kraus continues with a paragraph that summarizes the shortcomings of modern publishing, which relies on the gatekeeper’s ability to select books that will be published:

Over the course of the week, I will hear a lot of this sentiment: that the stock should not be shown the abattoir (e.g., that writers would be appalled at the bookselling environment). But the more I’m told that writes are excluded to protect their literary innocence, the more this begins to sound aggressive and suspect. It’s faux-apologetic, and I think the real point is not to deride the seamy flux but to flaunt it. The commerce is not the embarrassment; it is the pride. Writers aren’t invited or welcome because once their manuscripts are in the hands of publishers and their foreign-rights reps, they are excused from the process. It is time for the professionals to take over.

Professionals are not necessary to the sales process in the age of the Internet. That’s not to say that professionals cannot help improve what is read—certainly William P. Young’s turning to an experienced author helped him immensely—but they are no longer sufficient in a market where very small groups of readers can support and promote a writer or publication they like, if they can find what interests them in the first place. Google solves 95 percent of the discovery problem and none of the questions about quality of information and writing. So it is easy for readers to find something that might interest them, but they do not have any assurance it will be interesting, useful, accurate or available from one week to the next. The record of the magazine industry, though it is struggling now, shows clearly the influence of increased ease of production and distribution does for publishing. In the 14 years after desktop publishing became viable, the number of magazines published in the United States leapt from 2,500 in 1985 to 5,500 in 1998[iv]—smaller audiences, if offered a reasonably priced magazine on a specialized topic, can support more publications. Desktop publishing lowered the barriers in production, but not distribution. Digital publications have proliferated at rates that exceed the 220 percent growth in the number of magazines published in the years after the Macintosh and the PageMaker and Quark desktop publishing applications came out by orders of magnitude. The Internet exploded that growth rate by lowering the cost of distribution to near-zero compared to any other medium that preceded it.

With the arrival of the Internet and World Wide Web in most homes in the developed world, hundreds or thousands of blogs on a single narrow topic can coexist, and support one another with links that drive readers to new articles across many blogs. Google returns 6.2 million hits, links to articles, for “Subaru blogs,” 21.9 million hits for “tattoo blogs,” and 135 million hits for “hip-hop blogs.” Most of the writing and information is probably useless, repetitive or both, and many sites are operated as computerized zombies that place keywords on Web pages in order to earn advertising revenue, adding no value to the content of the page. Nevertheless, people are talking, using written works to form communities of interest.

Today, in an era when there are 235 million Web sites around the world[v], with as many as 133 million blogs created since 2002[vi], and hundreds of millions—perhaps billions within the year—of Twitter and Facebook entries shared globally each day, authors can get feedback, constructive as well as unconstructive criticism, easily. With Wiki technology, which lets any reader become an editor, makes short work of sharing an entire manuscript or just a small part, such as a few sentences in Google’s upcoming Wave real-time communications service which lets anyone “correct information, append information, or add [their] own commentary within a developing conversation,”[vii] authorship is no longer necessarily a lonely undertaking. It may actually be that authors will find the writing world crowded, the barriers to publishing so low that there appears to them, albeit without justification, to be no market for their work because of the glut of information.

In this blogofied, real-time messaging wiki-media environment “word-of-mouth” isn’t an aspiration marketers dream about anymore, word-of-mouth is the environment in which authors and readers exist and work. Books, articles and any other document can take shape through the hands of many instead of just a few or one author. In that intense participatory environment, authors have the chance, if they choose, to bring their audience in from the earliest moment of inspiration, to share the struggle of creating a book along with the final product. A writer with a wiki can share the work, as did Rick Smolan (who created the Day In The Life series of event-oriented books) and Jennifer Erwitt, authors of The Obama Time Capsule, a $35 coffee table book, assembling the contributions of photographers and essayists. “It’s like some bastard love child of Web 2.0, grassroots politics, and those cheesy ‘put-your-kid-in-a-story-book’ carts at our local mall,” wrote blogger Terrence O’Brien.[viii] After ordering the book, readers can go online to add their own dedication, upload pictures and commentary of their own that will be included in the copy they receive. Each reader that does so gets co-author acknowledgement.

There is plenty of reason to think that authors will continue to write and revise before sharing their work with prospective audiences, but that is now their choice and not the inescapable consequence of individual anonymity in an industrial age. First-time writers don’t need to wait for an agent or author to give feedback, advice is the cheapest commodity on the Web. The aesthetic choice to expose the sausage making involved in book writing may not appeal in all cases, though it can be argued that in any niche subject there will always be fanatics who want to participate, getting their hands as dirty as possible. These obsessive participants will also be the most energetic evangelists on behalf of the resulting book.

To be continued….


[i] “Literary Spotlight” William P. Young,” by Carlotta Holton, WritersNewsWeekly.com, Vol. 9, Issue 25, September 30, 2008. Web: http://www.writersnewsweekly.com/literary_spotlight_young.html

[ii] “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

[iii] Milliot, Jim, “BISG: Industry Grew 1% in 2008 to $40.3 Billion,” Publishers Weekly, June 1, 2009. Web: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6661554.html

[iv] “Can a New Magazine Survive”” by Guy Short, Slate Magazine, August 4, 1999. Web: http://www.slate.com/id/1003340/

[v] “May 2009 Web Server Survey,” NetCraft Ltd, May 27, 2009. Web: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2009/05/27/may_2009_web_server_survey.html

[vi] “State of the Blogosphere/2008,” Technorati Inc. Web: http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/

[vii] “Google Wave: A Complete Guide,” by Ben Parr, Mashable.com, May 28th, 2009. Web: http://mashable.com/2009/05/28/google-wave-guide/

[viii] O’Brien, Terrence, “’Obama Time Capsule’ Book, Authored By You, Online,” Switched.com, May 23, 2009. Web: http://www.switched.com/2009/05/23/obama-time-capsule-book-authored-by-you-online/

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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