As techno-science increasingly reaches into every aspect of life, formerly fast held distinctions between the inert and the active, the human and non-human and life and matter are cracking. From biotechnical engineering to the cataclysmic imminence of climate change, our very notions of what and how we consider life are under fire. What are the ethical, aesthetic and political stakes in understanding a world view in which humans are no longer at the centre?
The Vibrancy Effect is the result of a closed expert meeting organized by V2_ and Chris Salter that brought together artists, social scientists, natural scientists and humanities experts to explore the question of what matter does, to us and the world, and to bridge the gap between different disciplines conceptualizing and working with new notions of ‘vibrant materiality’ (Jane Bennett) and ‘material agency’ (Andrew Pickering).
Concept by Chris Salter/Erik Adigard/M.A.D.
Edited by Chris Salter, Harry Smoak and Michel van Dartel
Designed by M.A.D./Erik Adigard, Patricia McShane & Htet Win
Animated ePub, Illustrated with video fragments.
With: Andrew Pickering, Timothy Lenoir, Tagny Duff, Sundar Sarukkai, Dmitry Gelfand, Evelina Domnitch, Arjen Mulder, Sally Jane Norman, Peter Cariani, Mariam Fraser, Maurizio Martinucci, Joel Ryan,Tomasz Jaskiewicz, Harry Smoak and Chris Salter
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Dolph Smith is a book artist from Memphis, Tennessee. His home/studio of thirty years in midtown and the Memphis College of Art where he taught for thirty years were only ten minutes from where he was born. Until he moved with his wife Jessie to a new home/studio 50 miles away in the countryside in Ripley, he had, as he says, "not come very far in life." At Memphis College of Art Dolph taught painting and drawing in early years, and, in the late 70’s, developed a Hand Papermaking and Book Arts program called "The Flying Vat." Dolph's art works ranged over the years from watercolors and drawings into years of paperworks and sculpture. Currently he is involved with creating one-of-a-kind handmade books.
If I pick up a book and it has 25 pages, I see them as 25 moving parts. My approach to the book is as if it were a small kinetic sculpture with moving parts. I do this without compromising the anatomy of the book: text block, binding, cover.
My books have visual and textural content but also plenty of blank space. This is with the hope the book will be used, held, entered, explored, added to.
If I am attempting anything unique, it is the effort to find a niche dealing with movement somewhat separate from the traditions of pop-up, altered books, etc. - hence the windows with objects moving about in them.
There is also the issue of sound - going beyond the rustle of the turned page.
To feel surfaces and parts is important, too.
I hope to engage all the senses.
Therein lies the story.
In April of 2013, McGraw-Hill Higher Education is releasing the first, ever, adaptive digital book: SmartBook.
While many of people may be suspicious and wary of ebooks, and their inevitable future, I am fascinated by an adaptive ebook. I studied English in college, and SmartBook is the logical extension of Post-modern literary theory. Postmodernism...I know, crazy, right? Allow me to explain.
While I could quote to you some references to some print books that cover critical theory (say…David Richter’s The Critical Tradition 3rd edition), I know that most of you will go where most of us do, to Google, and Wikipedia. Wikipedia doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation, I feel, but I came across a decent website.http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-postmodernism.htm
Read it for yourself, but the basic knowledge you need about Post-Modernism is that it rejects the idea of a grand narrative, of any singular definition of “Truth”. Think about it this way: have you ever told a “had to be there joke”? Well, that just proves that a story, in itself, is not, the “whole” story.
When writers began to take into account this basic understanding, storytelling became blurred with the telling of the story. They began to make blatant references to the audience; in film, this is called “breaking the fourth wall”, where the actor/actress talks directly to the audience. In the TV show, LOST, the writers killed off two characters because they were “universally despised” by the Internet fan base.
This represents a loop between creation and consumption. This constant online feedback, called “Web 2.0”, is an extension of Post-Modernism: a blatant disregard for classic conventions of story-telling. Anyway, back to McGraw-Hill’s SmartBook. The idea of a book interfacing directly with the audience, and adapting to them, real time, is incredibly Post-Modern. To be realistic, the purpose of reading content in a class is to learn the content, to pass the class, not to be able to spout off quotes (maybe at one time, but not anymore).
Additionally, the SmartBook disregards limiting concepts like “a visual learner.” SmartBook breaks down the idea of a singular text that all students must learn from. Adapting to the audience is an inherently Post-Modern idea, something embraced by TV shows, Movies, and Social Media. Now, it is time for one of the most basic building blocks of human knowledge to follow the trend.
While working in a bookstore in Boone, North Carolina, back in 2011, a 36-year-old college dropout named Hugh Howey started writing a series of sci-fi novellas called Wool. His stories were set in a postapocalyptic world where all human survivors live in an underground silo, a microsociety where resources are so scarce that one person has to die before another can be born. Howey had already published a book with a small press, but he wanted to retain creative control, and he didn’t want to go through the arduous process of finding an agent. So he decided to put out the new books himself, selling digital downloads and print editions through Amazon. In the first six months he sold 14,000 copies. Each new installment met with immediate enthusiasm. Within hours he’d receive emails from readers hungry for more.
By January of last year, agents were calling Howey, looking to publish the books through more established channels, but he was reluctant. At that point, the Wool series was already making him close to ,000 a month. Nelson Literary Agency founder Kristin Nelson won Howey over when she admitted that she wasn’t sure traditional publishing could offer him anything better than what he was doing on his own. (When she recounted this remark at a recent industry conference, the publishing professionals in the audience shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.) By May, Wool was bringing in 0,000 a month, and Howey and Nelson had sold the film option to 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott. A couple of publishers made seven-figure offers for the rights to sell the book in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, but Howey and Nelson turned them down. He’d make that much in a year of digital sales alone.
Then Simon & Schuster’s president sent Nelson an email that opened the door to a six-figure deal for print rights only. It was an extraordinary concession—the publisher would agree to put its full marketing muscle behind Wool despite having to forgo the ebook revenue stream that has generated the bulk of the series’s earnings. It’s often said in publishing that with a blockbuster book, everybody wins. But with Wool, it’s Hugh Howey who has won biggest.
After centuries in which books and the process of publishing them barely changed, the digital revolution has thrown the entire business up for grabs. It’s a transformation that began with the rise of Amazon as an online bookseller and accelerated with the resulting decline of the physical bookstore. But with the shift to ebooks—which now represent upwards of 20 percent of big publishers’ revenue, up from 1 percent in 2008—every aspect of the existing framework is now open to debate: how much books will cost, how long they’ll be, whether they’ll be edited, who will publish them, and whether authors will continue to be paid in advance to write them. It’s a future that Amazon doesn’t control and one where traditional publishers might eventually thrive, not just survive. The only certainty is that the venerable book business, a settled landscape for so long, is now open territory for anyone to claim.
Of all the worries in the publishing world these days, the king of them is cultural irrelevance. “The fact is that people don’t read anymore,” Steve Jobs told a reporter in 2008, blurting out the secret fear of bookish people everywhere. But consider this: In one week, people who don’t read anymore bought about half a million copies of a really long book called Steve Jobs. In the past year, Vintage has sold one book from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy for every six American adults. The Big Six publishers—Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins—all make money, and at profit margins that are likely better than they were 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, readers have an unprecedented array of options. E-readers have gotten consistently cheaper and better since the first Kindle shipped in 2007, giving customers instant access to millions of titles. For a couple of dollars you can buy a self-published sensation or a Kindle Single rather than a full-length book. Add it all together and you have a more vibrant market for literary material than ever before, with nearly 3 billion copies sold every year. Amazon likes to point out that new Kindle buyers go on to purchase almost five times as many books from Amazon, print and digital, in the ensuing year as they did in the prior one. “I believe we’ll look back in five years,” says Russ Grandinetti, VP of Kindle content for Amazon, “and realize that digital was one of the great expansions of the publishing business.”
For all the digital optimism, not even Amazon is ready to declare the traditional model dead. In May 2011 the company announced that it was going head-to-head with the Big Six by launching a general-interest imprint in Manhattan, headed by respected industry veteran Larry Kirshbaum. It signed up celebrity authors, paying a reported 0,000 for a memoir by Laverne & Shirley star Penny Marshall and winning over best-selling self-help author Timothy Ferriss. Tired of being undersold by Amazon and wary of its encroachment into their business, many brick-and-mortar booksellers refused to stock the titles. The boycott has worked so far: Marshall’s book flopped, and Ferriss’ undersold his previous offering. Ferriss says he doesn’t regret his experiment with Amazon Publishing, but he allows, “I could have made more money—certainly up to this point—by staying with Random House.”
Still, it’s not clear that traditional publishers are well positioned to own the digital future. They are saddled with the costs of getting dead trees to customers—paper, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping—and they cannot simply jettison those costs, because that system accounts for roughly 80 percent of their business. Ebooks continue to gain ground, but the healthiness of the profit margins is unclear. J. K. Rowling’s latest book helps illustrate this bind. At a rumored advance of million, Little, Brown essentially backed up an armored car to Rowling’s house to pay her before seeing a nickel in revenue. The publisher then paid highly trained people to improve the novel and well-connected people to publicize and market it until it was inescapable. Little, Brown’s landlord in Manhattan occasionally asks for rent too. If a reader can buy the Kindle edition for .99, the public might eventually find it absurd to pay .99 for a printed version, let alone the that Little, Brown wants for the hardcover.
What’s more, awarding huge contracts for books that may not even be written yet creates tremendous risk. The industry is plagued by what indie-publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash has called the “pathology of unearned advances.” An author who gets a book deal is paid an advance against royalties, and if the royalties end up exceeding the advance, the author starts getting more checks. But that doesn’t usually happen.
The uncertainty about a book’s potential value cuts both ways. Daniel Menaker, former executive editor in chief of Random House, told me what happened when a fellow editor there presented a case to his colleagues for making an offer on Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: “People just laughed, and someone said, ‘Talk about beating a dead horse.’ ” Good one! The editor, Jonathan Karp, luckily won the argument, and Random House bought the rights for only five figures. More than 2 million copies were in print even before the movie came out. Unfortunately, the more common scenario is that a publisher opens the vault for a book that tanks. Bantam paid a reported million in 2005 for two novels from a sci-fi writer named Gordon Dahlquist. If the title The Glass Books of the Dream Eatersdoesn’t sound familiar, you’re not alone.The disappearance of the physical bookstore would endanger the entire book business—even Amazon.
The publishing houses stay afloat only because the megahits pay for the flops, and there’s generally enough left over for profit. Predicting the success or failure of any given book is impossible. Menaker recalls Jason Epstein, who led Random House for four decades, telling him, “Make no mistake—this is gambling.” Which is why the pricing pressure on ebooks is so scary to publishers: If they are the gambler at the slot machines, placing scores of bets and relying on the winnings to trump the losses, Amazon represents a casino that offers smaller and smaller payouts.
Beyond the immediate concern over prices, publishers also worry that the disappearance of the physical bookstore could endanger the entire book business, even (ironically) Amazon. Research has shown that readers don’t tend to use online bookstores to discover books; they use them to purchase titles they find out about elsewhere—frequently at physical stores. (If you want to see a bookstore owner get angry, mention Amazon’s Price Check app, which allows customers to scan an item in a physical store and buy it for less from Amazon then and there.) With no stores to browse in, publishers fear, book sales everywhere could take a significant hit.
This is one reason that, in 2010, five of the Big Six publishers worked with Apple to institute a new model to keep other retailers competitive with Amazon. In an attempt to win customers, Amazon had been routinely selling ebooks at a loss, paying, say, to wholesale for a popular ebook and then selling it for .99. Under the new so-called agency model, the publisher would have the power to set the price everywhere—between .99 and .99 for most best sellers—but the retailer would take 30 percent. That is, the publishers agreed to a scheme in which Amazon would make significantly more per book and they would make less. They were playing the long game, trying to protect physical stores and print sales and chip away at Amazon’s overwhelming ebook market share.
After fighting the plan, Amazon caved. But the Department of Justice sued the five publishers and Apple for collusion, and Amazon described one of the resulting settlements as “a big win for Kindle owners.” The recently announced merger of the two biggest of the Big Six, Random House and Penguin, is widely seen as a move to build an entity that can stand up to Amazon’s market power.
In the long term, what publishers have to fear the most may not be Amazon but an idea it has helped engender—that the only truly necessary players in the game are the author and the reader. “I was at a meeting God knows how many years ago at MIT,” former Random House chief Epstein says, “and someone used the word disintermediation. When I deconstructed that, I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the end of the publishing business.’ ” At a time when a writer can post a novel online and watch the revenue pour in by direct deposit, the publishing industry’s skill at making books, selling them by hand to bookstores, and managing the distribution of the product threatens to become irrelevant. In Epstein’s vision, the writer may need a freelance editor, a publicist, and an agent who functions as a kind of business manager, but authors will keep a bigger share of the proceeds with no lumbering media corporation standing in the way.
So far this phenomenon has largely been limited to previously unknown writers like Hugh Howey. Amanda Hocking, a 26-year-old Minnesotan who worked days at an assisted-living facility, grossed about million on ebooks in a little over a year with her paranormal romances and zombie novels for young adults. John Locke, a self-published crime writer, had already beaten Hocking to the 1-million-ebook mark on Amazon. And then, of course, there is E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as self-published Twilight fan fiction but wound up making 2012 so bountiful for Random House that it gave a ,000 bonus to each employee.
But these are the exceptions. In general, new writers gain much more than they lose by signing with a major house. Most self-published authors have trouble selling a copy outside of their immediate family. Even if they have talent, they lack professional help or the imprimatur of quality that a publisher can bring. Indeed, Fifty Shades, which some have taken to be the definitive evidence in favor of self-publishing, is more accurately a demonstration of the opposite: The book became a massive commercial success only after Random House got involved, placing giant stacks of paperbacks in bookstores everywhere and buying huge ads in the London Underground.
The real danger to publishers is that big-ticket authors, who relied on the old system to build their careers, will abandon them now that they have established an audience. As Howey says, “When that happens, all bets are off.” The John Grishams of the world already manage to extract excellent deals in the traditional way because of their huge and reliable sales, and few writers relish the work of being their own publisher. But as that work grows easier—as complex print distribution loses ground to low-cost digital delivery—the big names are starting to get tempted. Stephen King has been experimenting with bypassing his publisher, releasing his latest essay as a Kindle Single directly (albeit with some editing and promotion) through the Amazon store. The popular suspense writer Barry Eisler turned down a 0,000 book contract with the intention to self-publish—but before he could do so, Amazon Publishing offered him a sweetheart deal.
Pretty soon one of these famous writers will step up to the cliff and actually jump. Maybe it will be Tim Ferriss. His less-than-stellar results with Amazon might push him back to a traditional publisher—or in another direction entirely. A great deal of money hinges on what he and his fellow best-selling authors decide to do next. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I self-published in the next few years,” Ferriss says. “Wouldn’t remotely surprise me.”
Evan Hughes (@evanhughes) is the author of Literary Brooklyn.
Brother, Can You Spare a Stack , Organized by Yulia Tikhonova
Brother, Can You Spare a Stack presents thirteen art projects that re-imagine the library as a force for social change. Each project constructs a micro library of sorts that serves specific economic or social needs within the community. Each project proposes an alternative politicized realm, which can be imagined and formed to explore the social dimensions of contemporary culture. Small and mobile, these projects resist the limitations of a controlled, highly organized system that governs our society. In contrast to subjective libraries formed by the artists picking and choosing book titles, these projects take a pragmatic and rational approach, using the library model as an interactive field. Selected projects update the principles of relational aesthetics, and shift them towards all-inclusive and useful cultural production. "Brother, Can You Spare a Stack" borrows its title from the lyrics of a popular depression era song, claiming that the artists invent alternative models of questioning, inspiring new perspectives on social transformation. They insert themselves into the most unexpected situations and spaces, in this case libraries, to propose social and cultural improvement. The exhibition includes projects by: Arlen Austin and Jason Boughton; Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune; Stephen Boyer; BroLab (Rahul Alexander, Jonathan Brand, Adam Brent, Ryan Roa, and Travis LeRoy Southworth); Valentina Curandi and Nathaniel Katz; Finishing School with Christy Thomas; Anna Lise Jensen and Michael Wilson; Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden; The K.I.D.S. with Word Up Collective, Eyelevel BQE, Launchpad, NURTUREart, Weeksville Heritage Center, and individual partners, as well as with Emcee C.M., Master of None; Annabel Other; Reanimation Library; The Sketchbook Project; and Micki Watanabe Spiller. Special thanks to Build It Green NYC! for their in-kind donation of materials used both in the Bronx and at the Center for Book Arts.
Support for BroLab provided in part by BRAC and NYPL. Support for Curandi/Katz provided in part by nctm e l’arte and the Canada Council for the Arts.
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