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.
Fra 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