1. The vent
A long and long-suppressed howl of frustration. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 below, or not.
I’m not sure any author is ever completely satisfied with his or her publisher. With my own two ears, I’ve heard folks who’d realized projects with houses I can still only dream of – Penguin, Vintage, MIT Press – issue the selfsame complaints about sloppy copy-editing and limp marketing those of us a notch or three down the ladder make.
Nevertheless, I’ve always regretted publishing Everyware, a think piece if ever there was one, with an imprint primarily known for how-to manuals for aspiring Web developers and Photoshop jockeys. It was a mistake, and it was my own; I was both overeager and insufficiently confident in my book’s merits. And as we’ll see, I paid for it.
In all fairness, the acquisition editor I worked with warned me that this particular publisher “just might not be right for the book” from the get-go. He was correct, and I should have listened to him. The process which eventually, and somewhat unbelievably, resulted in Everyware‘s appearance was strewn with tense and unpleasant negotiations, over issues I never even imagined cropping up. In each case, the publisher’s way of doing things struck me as being inflexible, short-sighted and injurious to the book’s prospects.
Some few of these were justified, no doubt, by a certain mean sort of bean-counting pragmatism (“We can’t use Akzidenz Grotesk on your cover, because we don’t own it and don’t want to budget two or three hundred bucks on getting it”). These calls saddened me, but I reminded myself that, after all, I wasn’t personally exposed to what everyone assured me were the brutal economics of getting books into print.
Some betrayed a profound misunderstanding of the way title awareness and buzz-building now work: “We can’t let you offer free PDFs of the book for download on your site, because that will cannibalize sales”; “We can’t let people Search Inside This Book on Amazon because…well…because we just don’t do that.” These decisions gutted me, because these measures seemed not merely like such self-evidently low-hanging fruit – truly missed opportunities for low- or even zero-cost publicity – but simply the right thing to do.
And some were just bizarre, unaccountable, unnecessary slaps in the face (“We don’t have room for an author bio,” “…an author photo,” “…a bibliography”). Particularly distressing, given my concern for the symbolism involved: until fixed in the second pressing, none of the ten living female human beings mentioned by name in the text appeared anywhere in the index. (I never did get the bibliography I argued for, and which would have helped the book’s credibility immeasurably.)
Oh, and then there was the initial design for the book cover, so inappropriate for the book that I’m not even going to post it here. Mail me if you really need to see it.
You know me: it’s not like I don’t have strongly pronounced and abundantly publicly-expressed preferences in design. One of the very first things I hoped for my book was that it would look great in someone’s hand as they walked down the street with it, or slapped onto a coffeehouse table – if not like these examples, then at least the way the volumes of Semiotext(e)‘s Foreign Agents series did when I was in college. What was offered failed, abysmally, on all counts.
Worst of all, Everyware was supposed to be an AIGA book! I suppose it was naïve of me to expect that a cover designed for such a thing might, y’know, be able to hold its own as a contender in the annual contests for best-designed book covers held by that institution – but even so, I was shocked by the “approved direction” I was sent. Eventually, after much wailing & gnashing of teeth, the infamy was écrased, and ultimately replaced with the clumsy rework of a concept Nurri and I, neither of whom is by any stretch of the imagination a designer, had come up with, and executed more competently ourselves to begin with.
I have no doubt that my freely-expressed frustration with all this made me “difficult” to work with, the kind of high-maintenance prima donna nobody in a shop with a well-oiled production process wants to be stuck managing. If I’m really feeling charitable, I’ll grant, too, that it’s hard to take a first-time author’s demands seriously. They have no track record, can offer nothing external against which to gauge their insistence that the work is world-historically important, maaaan, and deserves to be treated as such. I bet many a first-timer feels this way, and I was surely among them.
You know what, though? A lot of what gummed up Everyware‘s journey toward publication didn’t have anything to do with my being obstreperous. It was just half-stepping, and prima facie ridiculous excuses for mediocrity or outright incompetence. If I didn’t deserve better personally, the book sure did.
And since I try, at least, to live by the principle that you don’t bellyache about something unless you’re prepared to do better yourself, in my own terms there’s only one conceivable response to all of this. Can you smell what I’m brewing?
My father has never really been one for paternal guidance in the Norman Rockwell mode, but he has at least always taught me that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. My extended, happy marination in punk rock and zine culture long ago led me to the same conclusion, albeit for different reasons. And now I’m finally convinced that the contemporary economics of production and distribution make such an effort feasible.
To be blunt, my experience with Everyware doesn’t hurt this calculus in the slightest, either. It’s rated highly by readers, I’ve always been delighted by the generous critical reception it’s enjoyed, and in the wake of its perfectly respectable sales record I am thoroughly confident that I’ll be able to sell the threshold thousand copies any serious effort at self-sustaining publishing requires.
The times, in short, appear propitious for total-control types like me.
Therefore, be it resolved: inspired by the luminous example of Edward Tufte’s Graphics Press, as well as that of our good friends at Chin Music, we’re going to try a little experiment. We’re going to publish my next book, The City Is Here For You To Use, ourselves.
And if any aspect of it sucks – from the illustrations to the paper weight to the customer service – you know who to hold accountable. It ships to my standards, or not at all.
The City Is Here For You To Use: Urban form and experience in the age of ubiquitous computing will be offered both as a premium, professionally printed and bound book, and as a free downloadable version in PDF, available concurrently.
As you probably know if you’ve been hanging out here for awhile, The City Is Here For You To Use takes everything explored in Everyware as a given, and a point of departure. It assumes that emergent technologies like RFID, mesh networking and shape-memory actuators – all of which are explained for the non-technically-inclined reader – will simply be part of how cities will be made from now on, and seeks to understand what impact they’re likely to have on metropolitan form and experience.
You can think of it as a substantially expanded investigation into many of the themes and concerns raised in our pamphlet Urban Computing and its Discontents, notably:
- How will our understanding of the city change when touchless payment infrastructures, “intelligent” access-control systems and dynamic advertisements are the stuff of everyday urban life?
- How might we use these new technologies to create liveable, humane, sustainable and vibrant places?
- Will we be able to do so while managing the inevitable new orders of frustration and inconvenience they’ll occasion – to say nothing of their unsettling, inherent potential for panoptical surveillance and regulation?
Through interviews, case studies, analysis and illustration, The City Is Here makes the case that these technologies can help us rediscover public space, then suggests how we might use them to reclaim that space as a common good and a resource for all.
Threading between kneejerk Luddism and blithe techno-utopianism, and forgoing all but the necessary minimum of technical jargon, I intend The City Is Here For You To Use to be an eminently accessible overview of a subject with implications for literally anyone who lives in the cities of the developed world, or plans to. I can promise that architects, designers, urban planners, and anyone interested more generally in understanding how the emergence of ubiquitous and ambient informatics will shape urban communities, physically and experientially, will find plenty to sink their teeth into.
The book will be professionally offset printed on multiple high-quality paper stocks, featuring graphics and illustrations especially commissioned for this edition. Properly indexed and with a full bibliography and list of resources, just as you would expect. You may expect a restrained use of color.
The first pressing will be offered as a signed and numbered limited edition. Further pressings may follow, depending on demand, but will not be so embellished.
Both book and PDF will be offered under Creative Commons license. You will be able to share and recontextualize material from The City Is Here however you want, provided only that your use is noncommercial and extends the same provisions to those further downstream.
To the maximum degree possible, everything learned in the design, production and distribution of The City Is Here will be shared on this site. We’ll furnish you with detailed information on the vendors, materials, methods, and procedures we employ, constituting a kit of parts for you to take and use as you will.
Timeline, price and ordering.
Nurri and I need to spec the format, size and paper, and go get some bids. (You’ll see, we’ll invite you along.) Until these are in hand, I can’t specify either final page count or the size of the initial pressing, and therefore can’t make a useful estimate of what we’ll need to charge for the book.
Once these values have been determined and we’ve settled on an appropriate price – and believe me, I’ll let you know – The City Is Here can be pre-ordered by making a $10.00 deposit via PayPal. Production will not proceed until one hundred pre-orders have been received.
As of now, I anticipate – underline “anticipate” – having a book in your hands one year from today, on the first of January 2009. In the unlikely event that one hundred pre-orders are not received in the next six months, we’ll scrap the print portion of the project and all deposits will be fully refunded, minus whatever transaction processing fees are assessed by PayPal. (The text will still be made available as a Creative Commons-licensed PDF in this event. Should this happen, we’ll ask you to contribute whatever you feel the download is worth to you, on the Radiohead model. Just so everyone’s clear, that includes “nothing.” We obviously hope you get more than that out of it, though.)
So here we go. A new adventure for a new year. Let’s see where this takes us.
Do me a favor? Email me, or leave a note in comments, if you intend to pre-order The City Is Here For You To Use. This will help us considerably with our planning. Consider it a pre-preorder. : . )