We’ve got a lot of people to thank.
The world of online publishing and small-press operations is exploding. Thousands of blogs fire up every day. Increasingly, hopeful authors have turned to local publishers to press their words to the page. Traditional publishing houses can afford far fewer risks than before. Most journalists no longer work for the Times or the Post. They cancelled their subscriptions in favor of online citizen newswriting. And they work for free.
The rapid shift in traditional publishing is so strong that the storied halls of the ancient houses in Boston, New York, and Chicago shake beneath the feet of a thousand scrambling editors all trying to keep up. Houses responsible for Vonnegut, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald – long in control of what the world reads – now fight for their place on the front lines. Men and women with forty years in the field are, for the first time, less desirable than bright-eyed young graduates. Senior employees lose their jobs to someone half their age, kicked out for being too experienced.
And we’ve got a lot of people to thank.
This change is hated. This change is loved. It’s cursed and praised and trivialized and exaggerated. Your ninety-year-old neighbor may have never heard of Twitter or Facebook, but he has more than a few words to say about the decline of print. It is one of the most well known dinner party discussions and boardroom arguments of our time. Teachers, children, hermits, athletes, the tie salesman at Macy’s, and Uncle Steve all have an opinion.
And we’ve got a lot of people to thank.
People much more qualified than I have written extensively about the rise of digital, the fall of print, the collapse of digital, and the sudden nostalgia of print. They’ve claimed that books are dead and the web is dead and used the same eulogy both times. Headlines crowning paper victorious lead to articles declaring online content king. The intelligent, educated authors of this genre of click-bait have never had firmer convictions, and they’ve never been more willing to abandon them for a better-selling title.
I will leave those articles to the professionals.
Beyond the BuzzFeeds and Gawkers of the world are actual, scholarly pieces detailing the power struggle and convergence of print and digital. They discuss the future of the publishing industry, the importance of social media, and the effects of both on consumers.
I’m not touching that either.
I’m writing a thank-you note.
Everyone talks about where we’re headed, but few mention the stops along the way. If Arianna Huffington is the movie star accepting an Oscar, who does she thank in her speech? Here is a thank-you note to the original belligerents in the media war.
1. The Phoenicians
Say what you will about these seafaring salesmen, they made some damn good letters. The Phoenician script might be the first widespread alphabetic system, and certainly is one of the most influential. Any fifth grader could tell you that our Roman alphabet comes from these ancient letters, but Greek, Arabic, many Indian and East Asian languages, and a variety of ancient tongues owe their written origins to the twenty-two ancient scribbles that at least three conspiracy theorists probably attribute to aliens.
Phoenician owes its own backstory to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The letters, which could change appearance depending on who was writing and where, are much simplified versions of the image-based script of the pharaohs. Excluding Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, the vast majority of modern communication relies on alphabets derived from this one ancient alphabet.
Thanks, Phoenicians, for trading words along with wine and forever changing the written world
2. Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg is best known for being the subject of three out of five middle school essays. Secondarily, he was the inventor of the European printing press. Gutenberg is low-hanging fruit for any article about publishing, but it’s hard to understate his significance.
Before Johnny Goot fell into the historic record, books were painstakingly handmade pieces of art. They were available only to the clergy and the very rich, and thus only the clergy and the very rich had reason to be literate. Once our bearded buddy swooped in with his printing machine, books were suddenly affordable, and gradually the unwashed masses learned their letters.
This sudden access to written knowledge toppled the information monopoly long held by the Church and ruling classes. In many ways, the printing press was a primordial digital revolution – taking the power of information from the hands of a few and giving it to the public. As blogs, image sharing, and Facebook have chipped away at the power of traditional press, Gutenberg’s invention turned the informed minority upside down. For the first time in centuries, and possibly more so than ever before, ignorance was no longer excusable.
Thanks, Gutenberg, for turning information into a publicly held commodity.
3. Allen Lane
We’re jumping ahead a bit now to Allen Lane, chairman of U.K. publisher The Bodley Head. In the 1930s, they were simultaneously a respected institution and on the verge of financial disaster. The Depression hit them hard, and like other publishers they were struggling to stay in the black. Heads turned to Chairman Lane, who had inherited the job from his uncle.
According to legend, Lane was on his way home from a disappointing visit with Agatha Christie in which no one was murdered. He searched the train station for some quality reading material, but could only find the trashy “penny dreadfuls” bored housewives claimed not to read. Why, he thought, could upstanding literature not also appear in paperback?
Lane pitched the idea to Bodley Head. They turned him down, worried about investing in a brand new venture when their own future was so uncertain. Using his personal finances, Lane founded Penguin Books with his two brothers. They priced their books to match a pack of cigarettes, making them popular with people who wanted to quit smoking but did not feel like recalculating their monthly budget.
Penguin Books was unique in several ways. First, they were not originally marketed to bookstores. Lane wanted his books at newsstands and pharmacies – Woolworth’s was an early distributer. Second, the design of the book focused on the brand, not the author. The covers were incredibly simple and color-coded by genre. A penguin graced the front of each copy.
Allen Lane’s venture was enormously successful. Each book had to sell 17,000 copies before making a profit. After just one year, Penguin had sold more than 3 million. They continue to be a dominant force in publishing, while The Bodley Head name now exists only as intellectual property. Lane had launched a profitable product in the midst of a depression, reversed the reputation of the paperback, and founded a major publishing company when nobody else would even invest. Paperback books have been a mainstay of publishers for decades. Lane paved that road.
But wait. Struggling publishers? Financial collapses? Taking an old industry in a bold new direction? Sounds a lot like what we’re seeing now. Every publisher – especially former juggernauts like Random House and Pearson – is desperately searching for the next big thing. They know the meaning of words like “blog” and “social media,” but they don’t know the application. Without an Allen Lane on staff, the Big Four now watch as small, savvy operations take their business. Years of experience are now a hindrance, and veterans of publishing lose their jobs to college grads who think a punch-card gets them a free drink with ten purchases.
Thanks, Allen Lane, for softening our covers and our hearts.
4. Justin Hall, Jorn Barger, and Other Pioneer Bloggers
Blogging is great. It’s just really great. Sure, there are a lot of god-awful, snail-spit blogs. Yeah, the sites are one of the leading distributers of misinformation on the Web. Sure, some of them are designed using a color scheme that looks like an explosion at the Crayola factory, or vomit more moving images than a feature-length film. We’re just going to ignore those.
The blogs that have actually had an impact have really had an impact. From live commentary on the September 11 attacks to reports from Middle-East war zones, weblogs help people around the world stay connected and informed. We owe the success of this hugely influential genre of website to a very small number of early adopters, chief among them Justin Hall.
Justin Hall’s site, Justin’s Links from the Underground, celebrates its 20th anniversary early next year. The site’s famously exhibitionist writing style led other bloggers to write about their personal lives as well. Weblogs changed from a library of links to the online diary style so closely tied to them today. Hall is generally regarded as the “founding father of personal blogging.”
At first glance, Jorn Barger is a beard wearing a man’s face. He looks like he could fit an industrial farm and processing center in his facial hair, and may very well have once stood outside a New York City bank yelling about that one time he saw Jesus pushing Gandhi on a swing while Castro personally murdered JFK. But damn if he isn’t a visionary.
Barger has been active online pretty much since the first site went live. He coined the term weblog and continues to write his own, Robot Wisdom, while simultaneously holding absolutely no long-term employment – a fact he is evidently rather proud of. A digital transparency advocate and acknowledged “online legend,” Barger also writes extensively about the “connection between artificial intelligence and the masterworks of James Joyce.” Do with that information as you will.
Dave Winer of Scripting News, Scott Rosenberg of Salon.com, and other pioneer bloggers led the way to the personalized, digitized revolution we now call the blogosphere. Love it or hate it, blogs are here to stay. Even the shitty ones.
Thanks, pioneer bloggers, for giving idiots and intellectuals alike a soapbox, audience, and fifteen minutes of fame.
5. Nicholas Carr and Yochai Benkler
Back in 2006, Nicholas Carr commented on a blog post by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler. Carr – known for his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” – disagreed with Benkler’s theory that the Internet of 2006 was moving towards peer-produced content. Rather, he thought the price-incentivized system used by traditional news media would emerge victorious. The dispute led to the Carr-Benkler wager: If, by 2011, the dominant sites relied on voluntary, peer-produced content, Carr would buy Benkler dinner. If those sites still paid writers for material, Benkler would pick up the check.
In 2011, Carr claimed he had definitively won. Benkler disagreed. Both knew from the start that they would not get a black-and-white answer – both systems would still co-exist. But it seems even their criteria for which was the dominant system was cause for debate. Benkler cited Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia as some of the most visited sites in the world. None of these pay users for content creation. Carr acknowledged this, but added that the most popular pages on Facebook and the most viewed videos on YouTube were all commercial productions. Popular opinion seems to be with Yochai Benkler, but to this day neither has admitted defeat.
Publishing houses aren’t the only ones who don’t fully understand the Web. Even the experts can’t agree.
Thanks, Yochai Benkler and Nicholas Carr, for your delightfully passive-aggressive lover’s spat that continues to highlight the uncertainty of online trends.
We have a lot of people to thank. This list barely scratches the surface. The Web is a constantly evolving, never slowing, organic lifeform that everyone knows and nobody understands. Within minutes, this small, simple list could appear on BuzzFeed with the title “5 Print-Murdering Maniacs You Didn’t Know You Secretly Wanted to Thank and Also We Miss the 90s.”
Thanks, print-murdering maniacs, for making that possible.
Ager, Simon. “Phoenician/Canaanite .” Omniglot. Omniglot Limited, n.d. Web. 2 Nov.
Benkler, Yochai. “Carr-Benkler Wager Revisited.” Yochai Benkler’s Blog. Harvard
University, 7 May 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
Carr, Nicholas G. “Pay Up, Yochai Benkler.” Rough Type. Nicholas Carr, 1 May 2012.
Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
“Inventor of the Week: Johannes Gutenberg.” MIT School of Engineering.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.
Rosenberg, Scott. Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why
It Matters. New York: Crown, 2009. Print.
Trubek, Anne. “How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular
Literature.”Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 31 Mar. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.