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Small Demons

Things are going swimmingly in the Land of the Fizzy with a kickass launch party for the last of the 2011 books, Kio Stark’s Follow Me Down, at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Tuesday. But in order to ensure that Red Lemonade remains insulated from the pressure to make a lot of money now, to grow to a uselessly generic size now, in order to continue to experiment with different kinds of publishing behavior, Mark Warholak and I have decided to make Red Lemonade a fully volunteer-operated enterprise.

This meant that I had to look for something new. And boy did I find it. At BEA this year I was introduced by Brian O’Leary and Kassia Kroszer to Valla Vakili, CEO of Small Demons. As he sat down and started to explain it to me, my mind flooded. There were all these people I wanted to introduce him to: publishers, writers, bloggers. People who should know about Small Demons, who can help and be helped. What I also realized is that I had never thought of this angle on books, culture, discovery, and reading.

Now this is going to sound a wee bit conceited, but I’d prided myself until then on knowing pretty much every angle there was on new modes of publishing. I was up on on annotation, social reading, transmedia, distributed editing, Digital Humanities, on music projects like Pandora, Spotify, SoundCloud, on journalism, on Shirky’s Age of Abundance and Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans and Bruce Sterling’s Internet of Things and Union Square Ventures’ Hacking Education. And so on.

But what Valla was telling me was new new. And it was thrilling.

So when I realized it was time to work for someone, I talked to Valla.

And am pleased to report that I’m now VP of Content and Community for Small Demons.

So what the hell is Small Demons? It’s the New Serendipity. It’s “Go where the story takes you.” I know I owe you details, but we’re not quite there yet. Just a few more weeks and I’ll be able to start hooking folks up with some nice examples of the demonologists at work.

But I’ll tell you where the name came from, because few if any LA-based tech start-ups derive their names from Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.

“The history of the universe…is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.”

A soft drink’s soft launch, Red Lemonade goes live…

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 retails starts in the book business too.

So the seeming radicalism of the Cursor project, as expressed here at Red Lemonade, is not 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.

So we’re restoring the, we think, the natural balance of things the ecosystem of writing and reading. The writers read, the readers write. The About page and FAQ describe and elaborate on how we do this””the books speak for themselves, as they always have. You will have questions that these pages do not answer, so contact us. We don’t pretend to have all the answers but we’re going to organize and contend with the important questions: How do we avail of our collective intelligence to make better publishing decisions? How do we provide mentorship and advice while avoiding cronyism? How do we harness the power of the gifted editor? 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?

You have the answers, not me. The site has feedback mechanisms everywhere, you can comment on this post, on a manuscript, you can create a conversation, you can create marginalia, reply to comments, you can see what we look like, hear what we sound like, you can find our names and email addresses, we will listen, we will respond, whether on matters technical or administrative or cultural and together we will restore books to their leading edge positions, once again transform social relations, once again launch revolutions.

One dude’s take on Cursor and Red Lemonade, perhaps the best yet…

In honor of heading to Austin, residence (and namesake) of the brilliant Austin Kleon, illustrator, nay illuminator, nay, translator of ideas, herewith Austin’s take on how the Cursor platform works in its Red Lemonade incarnation.


A Red Lemonade Sampler

In a matter of weeks, links like I’m about to offer will be offered on Red Lemonade, but I didn’t want to wait to share these little digital objects with you. Independent publishers with print distribution from companies like PGW, Consortium, IPG, NBN, SCB and from corporate publishers who offer outsourced distribution all create sales kits for the sales reps — little samplers than contain excerpts from the books they’re publishing the next season, combined occasionally with some information about the authors. Incidentally, most presses xerox the materials, but we used Lulu to create an 84pp little paperback. Anyhow, I thought I’d share digital versions of these sales kits with you, largely for the sake of letting you read those excerpts themselves, though also to give you a sense of how a publisher might address its sales reps — my approach is, I suspect, neither universal nor unique. So that’s why I left in my little letter to PGW’s sales reps, to give you a peek into that conversation.

Red Lemonade Sales Kit (pdf)
Red Lemonade Sales Kit (epub)

An Open Letter to Cursor

I received the below email recently, from a French acquaintance J.R. Partel whom I remembered warmly from his year in New York in 2004 or so. He is also a literary translator, a superb one, who translated one of the finest books I ever published. He wrote me in response to seeing a talk I have on Publishing 3.0 but as readers of this blog can attest, it could have been in relation to most anything I’ve talked about! I was about to reply when I realized that it might be might useful to actually do so in public, since J.R.’s critique was probably the sensitive, most aware and most grounded in actual experience (as opposed to anticipatory anxiety) I’ve yet encountered. Well not necessarily critique, I suppose, he’s writing about what we’re starting to call The Age of Abundance, which J.R. knows is happening anyway, so let’s say a critique of the possibly blithely optimistic strategies some of us propose or are implementing, a call to be alert against insouciance or naiveté. I also feel that I should let his piece stand here for a while, unmolested by me, allow it to take one a life of its own here, be somewhat Slow Web about responding myself. Do feel free yourselves to comment in your own good time…

bq. Dear Richard,

bq. I’ve just watched your presentation at BookNet Canada. I found it enlightening and surprisingly captivating for a non-betablocked disquisition on fairly abstract matters in front of a trade audience, so thank you, thank you and well done.

bq. I’ve spent the last five years running an indie record label, trying to survive elegantly in the war of attrition that is the music business. I wanted to tell you about my experience, as some of the issues faced today by the publishing world, the music industry had to deal with years ago. No doubt you’ve thought about all this already, because you’re clearly on top of what you’re doing, so apologies if this is old-hat, depressingly-rehashed stuff:

bq. I admire the excitement you get from the state of the publishing industry and its impending changes. Now that we’ve seen how the music industry failed to change on time, when it could have co-written the terms of its surrender, it is reassuring to see that other fields might not make the same mistakes. For me, however, building on unstable grounds felt horrible. It forced us to invent a business model for each record we would release, because in the interval the business had changed: vinyls were no longer a viable promo tool, MySpace had fell into irrelevance, new formats, new outlets, our Canadian distributor had folded… I’m not talking about the constant flux of influential blogs, tastemakers and promoters. Tracking all these moving parts to get a feel for the general taste and notice shifts in pertinent communities, it’s what you do to chart the course of your forthcoming records. I’m talking about rethinking the building blocks of the landscape all the time. It can be discouraging. It means spending a disproportionate amount of time on marketing issues and feeling under the siege of newness. New is good, but when you spend so much energy dealing with structural newness, you have too little left to take stock of or encourage newness of content. Stability breeds confidence. (Overconfidence breeds contempt, yes, but that’s way down the line.)

bq. The idea that a publisher is not only a manufacturer of printed matter but also the provider of a human experience (of ways to connect, if I understand you correctly) is true. But what do you make of the shift it entails, from a reader-book connection to a reader-writer connection? When I read a book, the experience I love and treasure is with the book (and its characters, sentences and so forth), not with its author. You could even say that the only necessary part of my relationship with literature is the book (printed or not, of course). But if you want to move into the $200 to $10K price range, you have to sell something else, you have to make the author part of the book experience. On Kickstarter for instance, above a certain price point the project managers are really selling privileges (more access, more involvement, more ancillary information, etc.). I’m not a wuss nor do I believe in purity of intent but are you not scared you’ll have to deal with sad fetishistic behaviors? Crazy fans spending way more than they should on diners with authors they shouldn’t idolize? Is this a necessary shift (from book to author)? Has it happened ten centuries ago and I’m just late to the party?

bq. And what happens to writers who just can’t muster the charisma or aren’t interested in writing their personal legend alongside their books? And those that aren’t writing the kind of books you can build a community on? Many of my favorite books are books that tend to be read by loners who won’t advertise their reading and for each Vollmann that I can see people paying to meet, you have a Lutz. Do you think the “old model” will still be there for them?

bq. Lastly, strong peripheries tend to take over the center, paratext becomes text and side businesses crystalize into the actual thing. Look at what happened to music (certain genres) : participatory practices have cannibalized pop music, they are pop music now. Remixes, fixes, mash-ups, fan-made videos, leaks, in some case the record itself is difficult to locate. The conversation overwhelms the discourse and you scroll down to the comments before anything else. We have something mildly interesting going on in France as far as social publishing goes. You’ve probably heard of mymajorcompanybooks? It’s like they know that the center cannot hold and operate on the assumption that it’s already collapsed. So they’re focusing on everything but the books: what comes before, after, the writer, the strategy… And the communities they build, as strong as they are, are not interested in reading or whatever, they’re interested in gambling and winning, of course, and I knew it, but still, I was expecting to see something beyond the hustle. It’s weird how fans are no longer consumers, experts or activists but want to be VCs, shareholders, editors… The original site, focusing on music, was a big hit. I’m not sure there’s a clear point here, except maybe that I’m afraid of what the systematic harnessing of communities will result in.