In certain circles, it was the buzzphrase of 2009. It was the work of designer Matt Jones, who'd noticed how the old WW2 propaganda poster Keep Calm And Carry On had mysteriously come back into vogue this year. You can sort of understand why such a message might be popular in these times of economic embuggerment: but Jones thought that what was actually needed was something a little more proactive. Some extraordinary art and invention has emerged from times of crisis, so why can't that be the case now?
Meanwhile, elsewhere in 2009, there was me. I've spent much of the past year on the Spank Gold project, writing up my artistic experiences from a self-defined Year Zero of 1989 up to the point when the first Spank The Monkey website started in 1998. Put all that together, and I've now got a full record of the last two decades of my cultural life on the internet. But... now what? After all, it's just the internet.
The answer to that question eventually came from that guy Warren Ellis who keeps turning up here. Aside from writing comics, fiction and content for twenty or so websites, he's also a keen observer of cultural and technological trends. He picked up on the whole Get Excited And Make Things meme, and used it to test out some theories he had regarding one particular trend. I watched him put his money where his mouth is, realised that what he was doing didn't actually cost him any money, and, well...
I got excited.
I made something.
The trend that Warren Ellis was investigating was Publishing On Demand, or POD for short. The means whereby authors with, shall we say, limited appeal can give their manuscripts to a publishing company who will print single copies whenever anyone orders one. This isn't your traditional vanity publishing model, where an author gives a publisher money for the privilege of having a few dozen books printed. The only time cash is involved is when a customer orders a book and pays for it, whereupon the proceeds are divvied up between author and publisher.
Warren Ellis doesn't need to use POD, of course. His comics are published by DC and Marvel, and his novels are published by Harper Collins - he's a firmly established author in his field, and can do more or less what the hell he likes. Which is why he chose to distribute his latest book via lulu.com, just to see what would happen. Shivering Sands is a volume of Ellis' online writings, collected on paper for the very first time. He published it through Lulu in November 2009, and has been tracking the book's progress on his messageboard ever since.
I've looked at the economics of POD before, specifically in terms of keeping out-of-print books available, like Ken Campbell's The Bald Trilogy. And I even dabbled with it myself a couple of Christmasses ago, when I used Blurb to assemble a coffee-table book out of two years' worth of The Belated Birthday Girl's holiday snaps. But that was a one-off, and - to be frank - a pretty expensive one-off at that. When I looked around the Lulu site, it surprised me just how reasonable their prices were, particularly for primarily text-based books. Not to mention how easy it would be to put those books out on general sale, with a few quid markup added for myself.
Which is why I'm announcing today that Warren Ellis and I now share a publisher.
During a few evenings in November, I grabbed the text and photos from thirty-odd of the travel pieces on this site, pasted them into a Word document, and beat them violently until they more or less resembled a proper book. That book is called Monkey Round The World: Travel Writing 1993-2009, and you can buy it right now from that link. At various times over the next twelve months, I'll be collating twenty years' worth of writing in other areas - Edinburgh, the LFF and the Pick Of The Year compilations are the ones that spring immediately to mind - and publishing those in additional volumes. I'll tell you about them on this site as they become available, and they should also be advertised on my Lulu Storefront.
Why? Partly because history has shown that dead tree media still trump digital media for longevity. (And if you disagree with that, that's good, because I've got some ten-year-old documents on 3.5" floppies you can help me retrieve.) I like the idea of having things I've written floating around in cyberspace where anyone can read them: but I also like the idea of having them gathered in one tangible package which can be pulled down from my bookshelf at any time. Or anyone else's bookshelf, for that matter. Though having said that, I'm under no illusions whatsoever that Monkey Round The World (or anything else I publish) will shift enough copies to allow me to retire from my Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry. But here's the great thing about Lulu: it doesn't cost me anything to put a book out there and see if anyone else is interested.
Throughout the production process, I took a lot of cues from Ariana Osborne's blog. Warren Ellis may have written the text for Shivering Sands, but it's designer Osborne who manipulated that text into the finished book. In the weeks following its publication, she wrote a series of posts on POD under the overall heading Making Things. They're a terrific read, ranging from the inspirational (for anyone who's not sure if they're up to the task of producing a book), via the snarky (for anyone who thinks it's not worth trying because they're not Warren Ellis), to the practical (for anyone who's still reading after those first two).
Her key message is this: the old cliche that everyone has one book inside them is more true than ever. Those holiday photos you've been hoarding in a digital biscuit tin? That collection of smoothie recipes you've assembled over the last couple of years? That country walks blog you've been writing? You've got the raw materials for a book right there: and the process for taking the final step of converting them into an actual book has never been easier. At the very least, you'll have a physical artefact you can be proud of - and if you're lucky, it may even be one that other people would pay you to own.
It's 2010 tomorrow. Excited yet?