In the first half of the Twentieth Century, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius began publishing Little Blue Books in a small town in southeastern Kansas. These books were on a wide variety of topics and reached a massive number of readers:
…in just over thirty years, [he] had become one of the most prolific publishers in U.S. history, putting an estimated 300 million copies of inexpensive “Little Blue Books” into the hands of working-class and middle-class Americans. Selling for as little as five cents and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, these books were meant to bring culture and self-education to working people, and covered topics ranging from classic literature to home-finance to sexually pleasuring one’s spouse. Distributed discreetly by mail order, Little Blue Books disseminated birth-control information not available in small-town libraries, advocated racial justice at a time when the Ku Klux Klan influenced politics, and introduced Euripides, Shakespeare, and Emerson to people without the means for higher education.
I’ve been thinking about this “Henry Ford of Literature” as I’ve been watching an incipient trend in the tech world: attempts to reinvent book publishing. Some interesting experiments include Stripe Press, the publishing arm of a startup devoted to ideas broadly around progress, and Holloway, which publishes manuals in tech-related spaces. There’s also this Roam-native book about ergodicity, which allows for the nonlinear exploration of the text, something that seems well-suited to nonfiction in digital form (note: Lux is an investor in Roam Research). And there’s the Future of Text, or even this exploration of “Why books don’t work.”
I am particularly intrigued with this intersection of book publishing and technology because of something I find fascinating: there are deep similarities between the worlds of venture capital and book publishing, from the upfront investments in future success (or failure) to the fact that these are both fundamentally hit-based businesses. Of course, you can only stretch this analogy so far, but I’d like to think that these are different ways of making bets on—and fostering the development of—ideas. Ultimately, both book publishing and venture capital are in the business of acting as midwives to new ideas and innovation.
And that is why these attempts to constantly reexamine and reinvent the democratization, distribution, and furthering of knowledge should be watched closely (and please let me know of other examples you are aware of!). For ultimately, publishers are catalysts of world-changing ideas.
A few links worth checking out:
And finally, Randall Munroe examines the popping of popcorn.
Until next month.