Media traction

It is very gratifying to have Bob Stein repost my recent posting on the Institute for the Book’s blog. I also did an interview yesterday which will be on IT Conversations next week. Will post a link when it is available. The show is posted here. Great job, Phil and Scott!

After three days of CES, I have some thoughts on the e-reader market that need to gel a bit. However, I did talk with a number of guests on the Lenovo Live Webcast about e-readers, tablet computers and the transmission of culture. The archive is here, if you’d like to take a look.

How to create new reading experiences profitably

Concluding my summary of my recent presentation to a publishing industry group, begun here and continued here, we turn to the question of what to do to revitalize the publishing opportunity.

I wrote a lot about the idea of exploding the limitations of the book in the last installment. Getting beyond the covers. Turning from a distribution model to a reader-centric model. It’s simple to argue that change is needed and to say what needs changing. Here, I offer a few specific ideas about lines of research and development that I would like to see begun by publishers, who, if they wish to remain viable—let alone profitable—must undertake immediately. The change in book publishing will happen at a faster pace than the collapse of newspaper and music publishing did, making a collective effort at research and publication of the results for all to discuss and use, critical during the next 18 months. Think open sourcing the strategy, so that a thousand innovations can bloom.

Making books into e-books is not the challenge facing publishers and authors today. In fact, thinking in terms of merely translating text to a different display interface completely misses the problem of creating a new reading experience. Books have served well as, and will continue to be, containers for moving textual and visual information between places and across generations. They work. They won’t stop working. But when moving to a digital environment, books need to be conceived with an eye firmly set on the interactions that the text/content will inspire. Those interactions happen between the author and work, the reader and the work, the author and reader, among readers and between the work and various services, none of which exist today in e-books, that connect works to one another and readers in the community of one book with those in other book-worlds.

Just as with the Web, where value has emerged out of the connection of documents by publishers and readers—the Web is egalitarian in its connectivity, but still has some hierarchical features in its publishing technologies—books must be conceived of not just as a single work, but a collection of work (chapters, notes, illustrations, even video, if you’re thinking of a “vook“) that must be able to interact internally and with other works with which it can communicate over an IP network. This is not simply the use of social media within the book, though that’s a definite benefit, but making the book accessible for use as a medium of communication. Most communities emerge long after the initial idea that catalyzes them is first published.

These communications “hooks” revolve around traditional bibliographic practices, such as indexing and pagination for making references to a particular location in a book useful, as well as new functionality, such as building meta-books that combine the original text with readers’ notes and annotations, providing verification of texts’ authenticity and completeness, curation (in the sense that, if I buy a book today and invest of myself in it the resulting “version” of the book will be available to others as a public or private publication so that, for instance, I can leave a library to my kids and they can pass it along to their children) and preservation.

Think about how many versions of previously published books, going all the way back to Greek times, when books were sold on scrolls in stalls at Athens, have been lost. We treasure new discoveries of an author’s work. In a time of information abundance, however, we still dismiss all the other contributions that make a book a vital cultural artifact. Instead, we need to recognize that capturing the discussions around a book, providing access (with privacy intact) to the trails that readers have followed on their own or in discussions with others to new interpretations and uses for a text, and the myriad commentaries and marginalia that have made a book important to its readers is the new source of infinite value that can be provided as the experience we call “reading.” Tomorrow’s great literary discovery may not be an original work by a famous author, but a commentary or satire Continue reading

Challenging publishers to change isn’t the safe path

Continuing my tale of the publishing industry presentation I made last month, begun here, let’s turn to the changes in the book and book supply chain that are necessary to resurrect publishing as a pivotal source of creative value in a time when gatekeepers are despised and largely redundant.

The electronic publishing supply chain is dominated by distributors, particularly those that wield a popular format as leverage to gain a larger share of revenue from publishers, who are still trying to determine how to change their product to address opportunities when books are not trapped in paper. Just as the music industry in the late 90s was led by the nose by encoding companies that charged a million or more dollars to “rip” a new version of a record label’s catalog to address a new format, today’s e-book industry is being hauled along by distributors who trade “free” encoding and distribution of e-books to publishers in exchange for rights to do so. The only major difference between the e-book industry today and music industry of 1999 is that more rights are being exchanged for encoding, where music remained a cash business that sapped the labels of massive amounts of money to keep up with new formats and channels for music. There are, however, plenty of e-book services companies trying to reproduce the music encoding phenomenon with publishers who, thinking that they can pay for a format will then be able to distribute the resulting files directly.

Unfortunately for publishers, the channel is controlled by application and hardware developers who have the actual customer relationships. Amazon, which has been toying with the question of whether to compete directly with publishers for more than a year, finally did so last week by signing Seven Habits author Stephen Covey to an e-book deal that completely circumvents the publisher of the books, Simon & Schuster. When I made my presentation in November, this suggestion was greeted with horror and a reflexive dismissiveness that has been beaten into sensibility by the hard reality that publishers have never mastered the customer relationship.

Publishers have excelled at the paper distribution process, actually managing to earn profits despite the vast return rates that paper books produce by the nature of mismatched supply and demand. With electronic publishing and the Web, publishers can certainly reduce returns—indeed, that is what most publishers I talk to are banking on in order to survive the transition to mixed paper and digital publishing—but no one establishes a branded relationship with a publisher, simply because books are aimed at readers’ attention, which is completely fungible, shifting from one publishers’ products to another’s from day to day and read to read.

Competing for attention and building brand reputation for reliable, enjoyable or authoritative writing (though books will be much more than writing in the near future, as Fast Company‘s Adam Penenberg pointed out on Wednesday), requires that publishers reject Continue reading

When customers love the product, but hate your mission, it’s time to change publishing

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a vision for the future of publishing to a group of publishing professionals in New York. Can’t say where it was, yet, but suffice to say it was worth saying and that the message was well received by the thoughtful, albeit skeptical, audience.

Despite the increasingly rapid changes in reading due to technological evolution, the folks with whom I was talking rightly believe that they should not revolutionize their business simply for the sake of revolution, and I was perceived, unfortunately, as a revolutionary. They represented publishers, distributors, supply-chain enablers and book retailers, all of whom need to embrace changing roles as they constantly refine those roles in response to greater information about what is in a book, how books are used and what readers think about the books they purchase, borrow or steal. Having worked in publishing—in many forms and markets—for 25 years, and for several huge publishing companies destroyed by the failure to change, I think my perspective is one of pragmatic realism. Certainly, the publishing industry I arrived in as a newspaper/magazine reporter is largely gone, victim of its failure to evolve with the times, with the reader’s habits.

Darnton 2So, it was ironic, I thought, that my opening remark, that the future has never been brighter for publishing (in this, I completely agree with Seth Godin’s remarks about the future of publishing here—I only wish I was a good a presenter at Seth), was greeted with a sense that I was trying to paint my revolution the color of the audience’s fears about the future of their individual business models. Sure, they were thinking, it’s bright if you don’t have to fire people, change the workflows at publishing houses, in composition and printing shops, and so forth.

Books are healthier than ever, really. According to Bowker, publisher of Books In Print, more than 900,000 books will be published worldwide this year. The United States produces more than five times as many titles as only a decade ago. Moreover, the breadth of the titles has never been greater, with genres and subjects exploding in their complexity. Just as the desktop publishing revolution produced an explosion of magazines and newsletters that transformed the periodical business in the late 1980s, print-on-demand and Web technology, including e-books, have multiplied the number of books, about every conceivable topic. Worldwide, the growth of titles published is growing faster than in the U.S., as it becomes infinitely more efficient to address language and geographically specific marketplaces with printed or electronic books.

Moreover, with more than $100 billion in local U.S. media spending in play because of the fall of the local newspaper, the opportunity to connect revenue with books that engage and sustain hyper-local communities, has never been greater. Succeeding in this market, however, means changing the entire book value chain, eliminating the value chain’s focus on distributors and retailers, turning it instead to models predicated on what the reader wants and values. Reader-centrism is the only viable basis for revivifying existing publishing companies, because every new player in the publishing market is starting their business based on close identification with their customer, the reader.

Now, I want to keep this short, and go on in future postings with more detail. But let’s look at the most recent description of what a publisher does that I was able to find, in Robert Darnton’s new book, The Case for Books. Darnton, the chief librarian at Harvard and an accomplished author captures what the publisher does as completely as possible:

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”

This is the mission of publishing from the time of the scriptoria until the turn of the 21st century, a risk-defined mission based on the high cost of making information available. It is not what readers want today, even though they do still count on many filters to help them choose what to read. The financial risk of publishing today is perceived as minimal, even though it is still quite risky because publishers are clinging to the hit-driven model that requires a book to sell tens of thousands of copies to be a “success.” Let’s consider Darnton’s definition of publishing through the eyes of a reader who can browse the Web, Google Books and myriad other sources of textual, audio and visual information. These people still love books, but they no longer honor the mission that produces many books, as evidenced by widespread dislike of the ideas highlighted in the following version of the quote:
“Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload.”
Let’s break that down in terms of the networked marketplace.

Gatekeepers are no longer valued, they are despised by people who feel they have the ability to judge information and ideas for themselves. As Jacques Rancière puts it in his latest book, The Emancipated Spectator, “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf” in a truly democratic marketplace of ideas, there are different perspectives that demand free rein and resent gatekeepers.

No one entity or person can/needs to control the flow of knowledge when everyone can do their little part by tagging, rating, reviewing and commenting on parts of the data flow; this is “crowdsourcing” in the fully positive sense, free from the stain of mob mentality, which can play an important role in an unbridled cataract of information.

Customers, not sellers, decide what will sell—they always have, but industrial production tended to limit the choices and create the appearance of successful planning, which in many cases is exactly what produced bestsellers, though at the cost of diversity, which people value, too.

Professional expertise is, unfortunately, despised because of knavery on the part of pundits, who claim expertise without the hard self-criticism that is applied by professionals. We do need people to help us select what to pay attention to, just as we have always relied on guidance from others when coming into a new environment. That advice can come from friends. However, it often comes from the loudest knaves in the mediasphere.

What reaches readers in a connected networked world is everything and anything that can be transmitted, but few would surrender their opportunity to think for themselves in exchange for a truncated view of reality—let us remain optimistic about people’s judgment and intentions here—but readers don’t want to admit they rely more on experts today than ever before, because they don’t see the world as information overload, rather they perceive they are seeing it all for the first time without restrictions, which is exhilarating, the very source of growth, egalitarian opportunity and the unexpected. That sudden sense of having options is why more books than ever are being produced and sold.

Given that readers today still love books, in more forms than ever, what is a publisher to do? That’s the subject of the next couple postings in this series.

Cross-posted to ZD Net.

CrunchPad illusion after all

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Mike Arrington has announced his CrunchPad web tablet, covered here, is “dead”, blaming his manufacturing partner for cutting him out of the deal. In the frothy market that is media tablets, just as in other frothy markets Arrington has stirred up, this is a story suspiciously full of holes that make CrunchPad sound like a stunt all along rather than a real project.

Bizarrely, we were being notified that we were no longer involved with the project. Our project. Chandra said that based on pressure from his shareholders he had decided to move forward and sell the device directly through Fusion Garage, without our involvement.

Later, Arrington insists other manufacturers have offered easy terms to him for the rights to manufacture the device and that he had “blue chip angel and venture capitalist investors in Silicon Valley waiting to invest in the company since late Spring. We were simply holding them off until we launched, to eliminate some of the risk.” If he’d said they were holding off for better terms from VCs because the device had launched, I’d have found this plausible. The whole story is too nice to be taken at face value.

Because Arrington, a lawyer, discloses that he never controlled the intellectual property rights to the CrunchPad, other than the trademark, and apparently had very poorly formed business agreements around the project with Fusion Garage, his manufacturing partner, this has the look of a great deal of smoke around something he’d agreed he could market without understanding the business, design and development challenges. At one point, he suggests most of the project was “pushed to open source,” but then why is it impossible to build it with another manufacturer?

Arrington claims that “prototype b” of the CrunchPad was completed by his in-house team. Certainly, it would have represented the major functional features of the design, which, if open sourced, should be available for his use in providing a functional spec to other manufacturers who could have come up with their own solutions with different components. Since he writes that his team had the release candidate device running Win7 and a version of Chrome OS, the components involved surely are commodities supported with well-documented drivers and toolsets.

Why take apart the death notice like this? Tablets and e-readers are the hottest “category” in consumer electronics, with a glut in e-readers and many media tablets on tap for 2010, customers need to read between the lines of announcements that promise revolutions but may represent black holes for their money and time. In this case, Arrington has created expectations that a $250 touch-screen device can be expected to do what consumers want, to “surf on the couch.” He created a baseline expectation that has proven to be out of line with what is possible today. It is certainly possible in six months or a year, yet customers don’t need the noise of empty promises to add to the complexity of making buying decisions.

It sounded too good to be true and it was, yet there are plenty of people who want to buy the idea and will now say it could have been done if not for a legal showdown. Customers need real world class champions of products, not contenders who tell us they could have or should have won if only the breaks had gone their way. Customers’ time and money is too hard won to expect less.

Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

The market knows best, right? Markets are bloody paths to progress. At this writing there are approximately 52 e-reader devices coming to market in the next 12 months. Fifty-two different devices coming to market (Here’s what I wrote about Steve Jobs’ approach to reader devices when there were just 45 e-readers on the horizon). Creative, the maker of MP3 players and computer audio cards, is the latest to announce their impending arrival, Zii MediaBook.

This is the definition of “glut” becoming reality. We can see a glut of e-readers coming and there’s no waving off the Kamikaze piloting most of those e-readers toward the deck. Will they blow up the fuel supply needed to get the next generation of e-reading off the ground? No, but the coverage will likely make it sound like e-reader failures mean e-book failure.

With excessive abundance comes failure, and that spectacular conflagration of hardware products, unfortunately, will dominate the headlines in this market next year as many, indeed most, of these devices are pulled due to lack of sales. They are ridiculously expensive for a market where the vast majority of customers buy one book or less a year—more than 180 million Americans don’t buy a single book in any year.

Many hardware makers will retreat and e-books, not the glut, will get the blame.

Today’s dedicated e-readers sell for roughly 10 times the price of a new hardback book. Most people don’t buy hardback books, so for argument’s sake, let’s say the average price paid for a book by the 120 million Americans who buy a book each year is $12. Amazon Kindle2 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, both of which sell for $259, cost as much as 21.6 books, which suggests they break the book-buying budget for most people. I don’t want to suggest there is a magic price for reader hardware, because we’ll see some of the new e-readers announced this year selling for $59 next year, because retailers cannot get rid of them. That is a result of fierce competition, but leave it to the press and bloggers to turn the whole process into a mandate on e-books, not the expensive hardware.

This isn’t a horse race, but a complex evolutionary event, that cannot be reduced to headlines. Consider: “T. Rex extinct, world awaits silence of lifelessness” would have made the papers, if dinosaurs had had their Gutenberg.

Yet, it’s a short step from “people don’t want e-readers” to Continue reading

The Bookends, Pt. IV

….continued from previous entry

In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).

To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.

The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.

Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time Continue reading

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 Continue reading

The Bookends, pt. II

….continued from previous entry

Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, which can be translated as “Poliphilio’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” tells the author’s tale of love for a girl, Polia. It takes place in two dreams amidst pagan bacchanalia that celebrate Greek and Roman antiquity, especially the architecture, gardens and costuming that the lustful Dominican monk imagined as he wrote in his cell at a Treviso monastery between 1465 and 1467. Based on hints left in the text and what little is known about Colonna during those years, Polia was the daughter of a nobleman, dead in her teens, whom he had loved apparently unrequitedly. The protagonist, Poliphilio (literally “the lover of Polia,” for Colonna was obsessively loving of every detail of the world that revolved around his ingénue) provides exacting descriptions of every lawn, statue, temple, garment and shoe worn by the object of his love and the many sprites, gods and goddesses that surround her. “Although these scenes were small, there was not the least defect in them, not even the smallest detail: everything was perfect and clearly discernible,” Colonna writes, via Joscelyn Godwin’s translation, approximately halfway through a 40-page description of a triumphant parade, not so much as a justification for his exhaustive cataloging of friezes, vases and garlands in the procession of lithe, voluptuous, nubile and hirsute pagan spirits, but simply as a transition to some 15 additional pages on the virtues of details that perpetually “stupefy” Poliphilio as he is led through his dream pursuit of Polia.

321930196_30a6851bb5_o“How many bibliophiles have actually read it is another question, for its textual excesses are enough to deter most readers,” wrote Joscelyn Godwin in her introduction to the book. She was the first translator to succeed in making an English version of the book in 1999, on its 500th anniversary. The Hypnerotomachia, which is vaguely familiar to modern readers as the source of The Rule of Four, a mystical thriller written in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is often celebrated as a farsighted precursor of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a complex modernist linguistic tour de force published in 1939 that combined many languages in a dream discourse. Colonna’s use of languages, in contrast to Joyce’s, is rather limited, with only a few words of Greek and Hebrew appearing as inscriptions on statuary[i]. His real talent, in addition to that friar’s eye for arcane detail, was in his ability to forge new words from Latin and Italian to create his own vernacular, a lovelorn torrent that, as Godwin points out, if translated literally would include sentences such as “In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her viperine capillament, her meschine and miserable soul, implacably furibund.”[ii] Nine of those overripe words were neologisms concocted by the writer, none of them has found acceptance in the half millennia since Colonna invented them. His wordplay anticipates the inventive texting of today’s teens and young adults, some of whom have begun writing novels and serial dramas in truncated English, Japanese and Chinese that are delivered to their audiences, mostly friends, by mobile handset. “Viperine,” to be snakelike, doesn’t have the same tone as “LOPSOD,” the texting code for “long on promises, short on delivery,” but both describe a certain danger and untrustworthiness when applied in a narrative.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was definitely not a book for everyone, as few spoke or read Latin in Europe during the 15th century and Italian vernacular was seldom published. The sensuous subject matter could get its Catholic author into trouble with the Holy See due to its graphic content—indeed the Vatican’s copies are reportedly obscured to hide phalluses, pudenda and breasts in the illustrations—and the pagan religion it celebrates. Colonna is only identifiable as the author because he hid his name and a declaration of love to Polia in an acrostic puzzle made up of the first letters of 38 chapters of the book: “POLIAM FRATER FRANCISVS COLVMNA PERAMIVIT (‘Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia’)” according to Godwin.[iii]

By any measure, Colonna was typical of an author in any era, sitting alone in his monastic cell, he wrote primarily for his own enjoyment and hoped the work would be read by a few appreciative readers. Perhaps, he may have thought, it might be copied or quoted by others in the future. Fortunately for Colonna, if he had a thin skin, he lived before the time when an author’s hopes would be dashed by rejection letter from publishers.

The testament of love to Polia circulated in a few un-illustrated copies for the next 30 years before it found its way into print in 1499. Colonna would go on to write an epic poem Delfili Somnium, which did not reach print until 1959, under his own name in the early 16th century before dying at the age of 94 in 1527 while living on a church allowance of food and firewood. He never profited from the Hypnerotomachia.[iv] The book would be reprinted in Venice in 1545, in Paris in 1546, 1554, 1561, 1600,1804, 1880, 1883, 1926 and 2000, in London in 1592, 1888, 1890, 1893, 1901, 1904 and 1973, and in New York in 1976 and 1999, among other editions.[v]

Why then are early copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili selling at auction for tens of thousands of dollars as one of the most collectible books in history and the volume that definitively closed the era of the incunabula, the books printed during the first 50 years of the era of the printing press?  It attracted the attention of a team of creative people who turned it into a classic publication. They did more than polish the text, they added substantially to the experience of reading Colonna’s book with a fine layout, clever typesetting and illustrations.

Ornate to the point of tedium, the Hypnerotomachia nevertheless happened to find a sponsor in Leonardo Grassi, a Veronese nobleman, some thirty years after it was supposedly finished on May 1, 1467. But no manuscript is finished, nor is it immune to the feedback of readers or publishers shopping for a risqué classical tale. Despite having dated the completion of the book, it has been shown Colonna wrote much of it later and, possibly, he rewrote some of the book at the suggestion of his editor to make its social and cultural references current to 1499.[vi]

Grassi wanted to impress the Duke of Urbino, whom he addresses in his dedication as “illustrious,” “unconquered” and virtuous, in addition to other superlatives deployed to flatter the Duke in order to gain business and social opportunities for the Grassi family. Grassi did not want his praise to adorn one of the few hundred titles already available, he wanted to present something new, a fashionable work that would stimulate talk at the sophisticated Court of Urbino. Another edition of Virgil, whose work was already available in as many as a hundred editions by the end of the 1400s, would not impress. He turned to Colonna’s odd dream record to surprise the Duke. Grassi also made the extravagant investment in an innovative printer, Aldus Manutius, to create the book known today, which is known for Continue reading

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 Continue reading