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

Calling writers

I’ve been an editor for almost as long as I have been a writer, and believe I can help writers do what they do better by giving useful feedback and actively editing. That’s where BooksAhead is headed, and the next step toward the site’s more august purposes begins today.

Would you like to write for BooksAhead, getting the input of an experienced editor as part of your preparation for publication? If you’d like to join BooksAhead, send me email at godsdog (@) books[no-space]ahead.com and let’s get started. Tell me a little about yourself, what you are interested in. If you are looking for ideas, I can help with that, too.

I know I’ve missed having an editor whenever I’ve written without one. Writers should form an editing collective, though that gets dangerously close to becoming a writing workshop. I promise to be a ruthless editor, though with that gentle interpersonal touch that justifies absolutely no payment whatsoever for your articles. Glory. It’s all about the glory of a well-written article and the inevitable notoriety that flows from publication under your own byline.

BooksAhead is Kindle-bound

Dear readers, I want to thank you for your early and ardent support of this blog. After one month of publishing, I’ve got a regular 150 or so readers at the site (not including search bots) and 25 or so reading via RSS. That’s extremely gratifying. Thank you.

I want to ask your help in raising the BooksAhead banner. Starting today, the blog is available on Kindle, if you’d like to read it that way (do add your reviews at Amazon.com). I’d also like to get more people into the discussion here on the site, so your forwarding articles, tweeting about what you’re reading here and generally helping spread the word would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, everyone!

Excerpt II, The Book Ends

Continuing where we left off the other day….. This segment, which is going to be torn apart and used in other ways, shows how quickly any writing on the e-book market ages.

Why Kindle is the early leader

As of this writing, in March 2009, e-books have limited network connectivity. The most forward-looking implementation of networking in an e-book reader is Amazon’s Kindle, a somewhat elegant, often clumsy device that, in my opinion, is poised to dominate the first-generation of e-book adoption. All that the network in the Kindle enables is electronic distribution and backing up of annotations added to a book consumed using the device. Called “Whispernet,” the Kindle network, which is provided by Sprint, with wireless delivery priced into the cost of individual books sold by Amazon.com, is an excellent first step because it eliminates several steps that other devices require before purchasing a book, including finding and paying for wireless connectivity. But because the Kindle remains a tightly controlled proprietary format—the books that people buy on the device today do not augment reading with connections to other readers, the author or communities of experts or critics that can extend the experience of reading—it remains an unattractive option for many, particularly those who would rather read one of the half million or more books available for free from archive sites such as Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search. Nevertheless, with the introduction of Kindle for iPhone in March 2009, Amazon has made its book format, which is based on HTML and a digital rights management technology owned by Amazon, the de facto choice for authors or publishers wishing to reach the largest possible audience with a book for sale.

Many who read this will object. Open standards, open formats such as ePub, and a variety of devices will be raised as alternatives to Amazon’s Kindle and the format of Kindle e-books. Unfortunately, I’m relatively old and have seen too many ideal products fall before the good-enough and mundane and that succeeds in reaching a critical mass in the marketplace, to think that individual features and benefits of ideal products will drastically change the developing audience for books on the Kindle. Business success is defined by the ability to sell something and culture has always demanded that creative work be compensated in order to sustain the creator—patronage was the primary compensation model until 250 years ago.

The Kindle has not locked up the market for all time, only for the foreseeable future because it offers all the new books available on any other reader or in any other format, while providing an even wider choice of titles through conversion and a relatively simple form of reader annotation with synchronization across multiple copies of a given book. There are still many shortcomings to the Kindle, but they’re the same shortcomings as competing devices, such as the Sony Reader and iRex Iliad, while Kindle does some things better than competitors. That is just good enough at a early adopter’s competitive price, in light of Amazon’s vast reach in the marketplace, to make it the device and format of choice at this time. Later in the book, I’ll explore the many devices and formats in greater detail, pointing to features and opportunities that will disrupt the e-book market in the future.

By Christmas of 2008, by my calculations based on conversations with Amazon executives and booksellers, Amazon had sold 379,000 Kindles (it’s an odd figure because they gave some away) and, because of production shortfalls had back orders for an additional 50,000 to 60,000 devices, which were delivered shortly after the Kindle 2 was introduced in late February 2009. After Kindle 2 shipped, the company sold approximately another 220,000 units for a total sold as of late April 2009 of about 655,000.  [As of July 1, 2009, I estimate the total sales of Kindle 1, Kindle 2 and Kindle DX is 754,000.]

It was the addition to Amazon’s market of the iPhone platform, in a Continue reading

Excerpt from The Book Ends

Here is the first of a series of excerpts from my early drafts of a book I am writing about the future of books. Not the future of e-books, which we will eventually recognize as another dimension of recorded thought that lives within the continuity of the idea we call “books,” though outside the confines of what a book is today. These excerpts are my notes, at this point, useful for the final draft I will produce. I’d sure appreciate any thoughts you’d like to add in comments.

The concept of the book, a manifold notion of words or pictures between two covers, has come to the end of its useful life. In a digital world, the organizing principles that made a book the logical package for the ideas of a single author or collective act of authorship has come to a fork in its road. On the one hand the paper book will always be around, while perhaps not so commonplace as it is today, to be appreciated and enjoyed, passed from hand to hand by collectors and people who appreciate an object of beauty, whether that beauty comes from the packaging or the words within.

This book, however, is about the road beyond the other fork. It leads to the end of books defined by their pages and covers, it leads to communities of ideas built sometimes by one author, often by many, and always involving a conversation amongst the readers. Conceiving of something that isn’t just a book will allow humanity to begin the long experimentation with media that solves the problems of how to produce, deliver and pay for everything from the news to the next great novel. It will also lay down the highlights of a map of new regions of literature, research, poetry and more. When words on a page become exportable, can be shared and annotated by every reader, every title in the library becomes a portal to communities, discussion, argument, debate and differences of opinion. Something new is born when we stop thinking that the book or the newspaper or magazine or literary journal or poetry chapbook must start with the front cover, a single copyright date, and a static text followed by the back cover.

What is this new form of the book? Is it the e-book so many people have tried to bring to life during the past 20 years? It’s much more, because the e-book has always presumed that with digital technology behind the text nothing has changed about the text itself. It still belongs within the confines of its virtual covers. The text becomes a product, mere content that can be “perfectly copied” without any change in the quality of the experience of reading. Yet, reading is only the first step of the communication that takes place within societies and between generations. Where the author was the primary producer of the book the reader is the major contributor to the e-book, or whatever we choose to call the post-book text.

Books—for now, the word is necessary to comprehension—are being transformed from containers into conduits. Granted, they have been conduits before, but they were slow carriers of ideas. Today can convey messages that are not part of the original text instantly. An individual copy of an e-book is an end point of, a doorway to, a conversation that takes place in real-time or over years. That conversation will be richer than disconnected conversations about ideas, because the book itself will also be an evolving reference that augments the initial statements of members of a discussion by providing a direct link between text on the page and the readers, and collects the growing corpus of conversation and related information that modulate the original text. In the same way a salon develops Continue reading