Editor’s note: This is a reprint of an enlightening article written from the heart by Mitchell Davis about his love of books and independent publishing. He is best known as the founder of BookSurge, the first publishing platform for print-on-demand books that was eventually sold to Amazon and became CreateSpace. Mitchell continues to pursue his passion as a pioneer in the modern indie publishing industry, for example with the Indie Author Project, which works to brings indie books and writers to wider public attention via distribition through local libraries.
There is no courage in flirting with fear*:
How libraries are becoming great at local content
I love books and the people who have the courage to write them. My life has been made less painful in profound ways by the gifted authors who write them very, very well — but all books are important. Books are artifacts of human experience and culture that have no equal. I feel very fortunate to have spent my career on the edge and sometimes in the center of this important world.
Last year I wrote an article on how libraries are creating a new indie and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) universe, by building authentic community. Building authentic community defies the modern laws of capitalism and organizational behavior. The process confounds those who believe things follow a certain order and process. To flourish, authentic community requires two key ingredients: 1) de-centralization and 2) commitment to a shared vision. The details are always TBD. Public libraries are one of few institutions remaining in the modern world that can claim these two necessary ingredients.
The most powerful output of authentic community is the thing we all need most: encouragement.
I spent last week at the Public Library Association (PLA) conference where I got to feel the encouragement of an authentic community: one built by the work of librarians, readers and independent writers and supported by our amazing BiblioBoard team of software folk, community managers, operational ninjas and creatives. Many visionary library leaders have contributed to this community as well — too many to list here. Their ability to see through the noise and envision a role for libraries as the custodians and curators of the vast indie book universe has been critical to reaching where we are today.
After 7 years of effort and work, we are well into the process of seeing the vision of Indie Author Project come to life in a profound way. Through the IAP community, public libraries are building important community archives of books written by local authors while at the same time elevating their best local authors to national attention and acclaim. In the process libraries are solidifying their role in the future of books.
Simply put, Libraries can be great at local.
In a media world that is expanding so quickly it is hard to keep up, this is an important niche for public libraries to fill not only for books, but for indie media of all types. We saw and spoke to dozens of librarians participating in the Indie Author Project at PLA and they expressed this simple truth to us about what motivates them to do this work with local authors:
It is more fun to meaningfully contribute and exert control over an important and growing part of the book world (local and indie authors) than to complain and consternate over bad treatment by big publishers.
Amen to that.
Scott Semagran (he is on the far right in profile in the photo above), whose novel To Squeeze a Prairie Dog was the winner of the Texas Author Project award for Fiction, articulated very well the power of libraries to excel at local media in his acceptance speech at the Texas State Library and Archives a few weeks ago:
“I was initially interested in the Indie Author Project because I immediately recognized it had parallels with the Buy Local movement. With the Indie Author Project and community libraries, what they are telling readers, in essence, is to Read Local. If you subscribe to the notion that quality books are only published by Big 5 publishers, then you might as well say that quality food only comes from big corporations. If you have purchased excellent produce at a farmers’ market or eaten a delicious meal at a local cafe or sipped an exceptional craft beer brewed in your neck of Texas, then you know—without a doubt—that big corporations are not the only place to buy these types of products.”
He is saying that to behave as if good books only come from big, corporate publishers is like pretending only Budweiser makes good beer. Indie publishing and local reading is here to stay and libraries are the place for it to flourish — like a local farmers market or craft tap room for media.
A Life in Indie Books
April, 2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of greatunpublished.com (GU) a start-up created and self-funded by myself and a small group of literary-minded internet entrepreneurs back in 1999. GU (as it was known in the early days) precluded changing our name to BookSurge, which was sold to Amazon in 2005 to become CreateSpace, which is now the omnipresent Amazon KDP — the largest and most successful indie author ecosystem that has ever existed by a wide margin.
So after two years at Amazon helping turn BookSurge into CreateSpace and another 13 years working with libraries, in many ways I have found myself back where I started on my entrepreneurial journey. The approaching 20 year anniversary and a recent re-connection with GU co-founder Jeff Schwaner has stirred some pretty strong mid-life nostalgia and new found understanding of my personal mission in life.
The publishing operation/on-demand printer originally known as GU naively aimed to bring to life the vision of the incredible poet and author Richard Brautigan who wrote of a magical library where any author could deposit their book to be stored for future generations.
Below is what our site looked like in August of 2000 (thank you Wayback Machine!). If you replace editors (who also have a role in the current IAP community) with public libraries in our 1999 mission statement below, you can see true Conceptual Continuity**.
I have been a massive Richard Brautigan fan since serendipitously finding his book Trout Fishing in America while on college student exchange in Wyoming (a story for another blog post). He is one of those geniuses who helped shape my worldview and for whose books I am so very thankful. I could think of no more poetic and important way to spend my life than to help build the library of his imagination and have a lot of fun doing it.
We were clueless when we launched greatunpublished. But we found clues along the way and as my life has progressed, I have become convinced this beginner mind is of great importance to building meaningful things. I feel very fortunate not to have lost the sense of mystery, enthusiasm and motivation it provides me despite repeated blunt professional trauma to the brain and soul.
Having no real business experience when we launched GU we naively hired a “consultant” (a business professor from the local college who had never launched a business in his life) to to help us name the business. After hearing the scale of our ambition and forcing us to sit through an incredibly awkward focus group – he suggested we take the name Quixote Press. The official consultants report suggesting this name went into fantastic passive-aggressive detail about the pain and suffering ahead of us as we embraced our delusions. We paid him $500 to tell us we were chasing windmills. Luckily, we ignored his advice and I am still chasing those windmills.
We are nearing the end of the first cycle of the indie author revolution, one in which Amazon re-wrote all the rules — as they tend to do with anything they touch. This work brought indie authors into the mainstream. I cannot underscore how important this has been to the work ahead and how proud I am to have contributed to this in a real and significant way. But a new chapter has been coming to life over the past few years and at the core it leverages the library’s ability to build authentic local community.
There are some entrepreneurs that “follow the money” and others that relish the act of creation in the same way an artist might. I unashamedly fall into the latter category and I am allowed this only because I understand the importance of selling paintings. That is to say, that money is critical to making things happen and providing ongoing sustainability for the work. Libraries are lost in the gap between sustainability and greed with their vendors. Money has to always remain a top priority — just not THE top priority.
The anxiety over the future of public libraries in the digital world is palpable and the anxiety is fueled by capitalistic opportunism. The net result is a negative energy suck that keeps libraries locked into patterns that are hard to escape from easily. This may deliver consistent profits to private equity shareholders, but it does nothing toward slowing down a future where Amazon (and the Internet on the whole) has rendered public libraries obsolete as a digital platform.
Being great at local changes everything.
Libraries and Authors can get involved by visiting IndieAuthorProject.com or CreateShareDiscover.com
* Credit for the title of this article goes to the Oh Hellos song Eat You Alive
** I must credit the term Conceptual Continuity to my friend and colleague Hans Offringa. An accomplished author and entrepreneur, Hans founded Gopher Publishing, a self-publishing and print-on-demand start up in the Netherlands at about the same time we started GU. We met at a print-on-demand symposium at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002 and have been working together ever since. Our partnership to put a print-on-demand footprint inside the Central Boekhuis of the Netherlands in 2003 set the framework for the work we would do later to integrate small footprint POD facilities into Amazon warehouses around the world.
About the author
Mitchell Davis is Founder & CEO of BiblioLabs, Indie Author Project, and CreateShareDiscover.com