Publishing is saddled with this terrible reputation for being reactionary and Luddite, our denizens known largely for caviling against technology and the new-fangled. It is perverse, truly perverse since publishing is in fact at the center of two major social revolutions that dramatically disrupted the status quo ante.
The first, printing, we all know and understand to a degree, but let me remind all concerned, pace Clay Shirky, that printing upended the established religious and political orders in ways that radio, television entirely failed to do -- these latter media being readily co-opted for propagandistic purposes by the existing political and economic powers-that-were-and-are.
The second, retail, is rarely discussed but booksellers were the first retailers to take their product from the back room and place it on shelves on the other side of the counter, for the public to see, touch, peruse. The consumer-centric approach to retail starts in the book business too.
So to be radical is not at all contrary to the historical spirit of publishing but consonant with it. Being opposed to technology is profoundly at odds with the book business because what is the book but technology, technology that has been smoothed and sanded by repeated contact with human society into the most comfortable technology we have, as taken for granted as our clothes, product of the looms.
I pick looms for this reason because it was the Industrial Revolution that produced the great rupture that bedevils publishing today, the abandonment of an artisanal mode of production/consumption for an industrial one, which took the highly social acts of writing and reading, almost equally performable by anyone provided they were literate (a significant proviso of course), and rent it asunder. Writer alienated from reader, writer from writer, reader from reader. Atomized. And in so doing created a system that was at its most profitable, because of the relentless logic of economics of scale, when there were the fewest number of writers, at its most profitable when the various phases of production and distribution could be handled by highly specialized entities and individuals, none of whom understood what the other was up to, a Fordist model of production combined with a Sloanist management model.
We have tended to speak of the model of publishing for the last hundred years as if it were a perfect one, but look at all the indie presses that arose in the last 20 years, publishing National Book Award winners, Pulitzer winners, Nobel winners. What happened to those books before? They weren't published! They. Were. Not. Published. Sure, some were, but most? Nope. We cannot know how much magnificent culture went unpublished by the white men in tweed jackets who ran publishing for the past century but just because they did publish some great books doesn't mean they didn't ignore a great many more.
I wish to restore what I believe to be the natural balance of things, an ecosystem of writing and reading. Not out of nostalgia, though I have appealed to history to buttress my case, but fundamentally because every time culture becomes more democratic, it becomes better. Not every cultural artifact gets better, but the total amount of useful culture gets better. Allowing people other than priests and philosophers to read and write made books better, allowing women to read and write made culture better, allowing racial and cultural minorities to read and write made things better, the technology that allowed this to happen made things better and typically predated in not in fact produced the social changes that reinforced the extension of the cultural franchise. Yes, the same arguments about too many books have been used to object to too many voters. So it is to a future I appeal, as well as to history.
This, however, is not just a manifesto. I'm putting my money, my livelihood where my mouth is by creating a web-based platform to enable this ecosystem in which the writers read and the readers write: Cursor. And I'm creating a publisher that is now using this system: Red Lemonade. It borrows from the past: we pick and publish print books. It borrows from the future: we allow everyone to add their own works-in-progress to the website, we allow everyone to comment on it. And the platform itself, Cursor, will eventually be available to any publisher, or publisher-to-be. We aim to be transparent about who and why we exist, and how we go about our business, though the books speak for themselves, as they always have.
We don't pretend to have all the answers but we're going to organize and contend with the important questions: How do we use the wisdom of the crowd to read and help evaluate what books should be published? How can a writer find friends and support and feedback, without it devolving into mutual backscratching, or ad hominem barbs? Readers here on the Huffington Post, indeed on any website of opinion, narrative and analysis, encounter these challenges all the time! Can we be mentors without descending into nepotism or cronyism? How do we harness the power of the gifted editor -- we need them to make our writing better, we sometimes need to blindly trust them but how far? These are all questions we're starting to contend with on the web, and we're starting to learn to apply these to books. How do we unlock more of the great value books create in our society, so that we can all afford to write and read better? For, in the end, you have the answers, not me.
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