Brain Pickings

Merchants of Culture: A Meditation on the Future of Publishing

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What Gogol, Seth Godin and TED have to do with the fate of the written word.

The year has barely begun and already it’s been a tremendously disruptive month for the publishing industry, with a number of noteworthy developments that bespeak a collective blend of optimism, fear and utter confusion about what the future holds for the written word as its purveyors try to make sense — and use — of digital platforms. Here are just a handful of important, potentially game-changing, events in the publishing world that took place in the past month alone:

  • Amazon finally unveiled the highly rumored and anticipated Kindle Singles, a new format for non-fiction works between 10,000 and 30,000 words — that’s longer than a magazine article and shorter than a novel — that authors can self-publish and sell for $1-$5, an effort hailed as the last saving grace of long-form journalism.
  • TED, always the beacon, immediately jumped on the format with the landmark launch of TEDBooks — short titles by TED speakers that adapt important ideas worth spreading from the screen to the digital page.
  • Seth Godin officially kicked off his Domino Project in partnership with — you guessed it — Amazon, an effort to reinvent what it means to be a publisher through a hybrid publishing house and distribution channel for a highly curated stable of authors. Poke the Box, the first book from the project, was just released for pre-sale today in a limited edition of 400, available as a hardcover ($9.99), Kindle download ($7.99) and ultra-limited-edition signed copy with a letterpress cover and companion poster ($75).
  • Former Brain Pickings contributor Kirstin Butler released the first excerpt of Dead SULs, her modernization of Gogol’s iconic Dead Souls, exploring identity in the age of Facebook — an experiment in digital self-publishing powered by an open-source writing process.
  • Startup The Atavist unveiled a revolutionary platform for long-form journalism and novella-length fiction, available on a number of e-reader devices, including the Kindle.
  • Renouned libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution fame, announced that he’ll be publishing his highly anticipated new book, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Bette, on Kindle only — a strategic stance against the slow turnaround of the traditional book industry, which makes timely topics dated by the time they hit bookstores.
  • Noted design thinking advocate Frank Chimero opted to fund his new book, The Shape of Design, on Kickstarter. (Please support him.)
  • Amazon’s ebooks sales eclipsed paperbacks for the first time, a landmark moment in publishing history.

So what is all of this momentum building up to? That’s exactly what John B. Thompson explores in Merchants of Culture — a compelling and necessary new book about, well, books. Thompson contextualizes the current turbulence of the publishing world in an ambitious analysis of five decades of publishing and bookselling, laced with rigorously researched historical background and invaluable interviews with veterans across the entire industry spectrum. (So excellent is the book, in fact, that we’re willing to overlook the irony of its print-only availability.)

Hovering between a serious academic text and an Entourage for the publishing business, full of high-rolling agents and drama-ridden deals, Merchants of Culture is as much a how-to for the everyman author as it is a what-now for the digitally paralyzed publisher, as well as an all-around treat for anyone interested in the future of the written word.

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