Wired has an interesting feature article on one-man publisher Chris Lauritzen’s year-and-a-half crowdfunded publishing project to produce an elegant, beautiful softcover reprint of the classic public-domain work Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. Issued through his publishing company Epilogue Press, funded by a highly-successful Kickstarter, this version of Flatland is meant to be appreciated, but it’s also meant to be read.
Nor, as it turns out, is it limited to print alone. Although the Wired article doesn’t go into this, the Kickstarter page notes it is also creating a web-based “library of shapes” as a sort of digital appendix to the book, though it’s fairly primitive as yet.
The big reason Lauritzen launched this project was that he felt releasing books in print now that paper is used for so many fewer things makes an important statement:
There was a time, not so long ago, when everything was printed on paper: ads, flyers, brochures, pamphlets, notes. Or, as Lauritzen characterizes that stuff: “Junk. Ephemeral noise.” But over the years, much of that junk has gone digital. “What that means for print,” Lauritzen says, “is that, yes, the amount of printed material has gone down, but the percentage of quality to crap is higher than ever. By choosing to do something in print, you’re saying this thing is worth a damn, this thing is worth going through all this hassle. Print is starting to become its own quality filter.”
I would actually have a hard time disagreeing. It’s effectively the converse of the point about how easy it is to self-publish digitally these days, and related to the way a single pen-and-paper snailmail letter is worth more than dozens of Change.org e-petition signatures. Putting in the time and effort matters if you want to be taken seriously.
For all that I make fun of the “smell of books” crowd sometimes, in some respects they do have an important point: a well-made physical artifact can have a life all its own, and be useful in ways that digital files can’t. And by “well-made,” I don’t mean assembly-line cookie-cutter like mass market published books, but something actually crafted like this small print run of Flatland.
Given that the Kickstarter earned over three times its $25,000 goal, there are apparently plenty of people out there who would agree.
This also emphasizes the importance of having a thriving public domain, because it provides endless fodder for projects that repackage that material in interesting new ways. We usually think of e-books and audiobooks when the public domain comes to mind, but new print editions are definitely another possibility—and certainly one which provides tangible results.
There is interesting backstory here. A few years ago I downloaded the PG version of Flatland and was appalled that it didn’t include graphics! It appalled me so much that I ended up buying a commercial ebook for $2. I see that in 2013 PG made an updated version which includes graphics — horray! (To be fair, PG has been on the cutting edge of ebook formatting — though before it reached that point, it released a lot of books which were not formatted to acceptable standards. I’m glad it is catching up on re-releasing older titles. As far as this edition, it is stunning to look at and if there ever was an edition that cried for such treatment, it would be Flatland.