Fast Company recently posted an article with the rather blunt headline, “7 Rules for Selling Stuff in a World That Has Enough Stuff.” I’m not sure why I felt compelled to read it, but I did, and, happily, I came across a tantalizing concept: “ephemeralization.”
The idea was originally proposed by intellectual Renaissance man Buckminster Fuller, whose eccentric mind produced a number of remarkable designs, like the geodesic dome, and useful neologisms, such a “livingry,” meaning the opposite of weaponry. In the aforementioned article, James Wallman defines ephemeralization as “getting more experience from less physical stuff.” He applies this practice to the sharing economy of Zipcar and subscription-based services like Spotify. But as a digital publisher and book lover, my mind went to e-books. They’re digital (rather than physical) and conveniently portable (more experience). Thus inclined to learn more about ephemeralization, I did a little poking around and realized that the concept neatly applies to how technology is benefitting independent publishers.
According to Bucky (and Wikipedia), technology progresses in a way that enables us to do “more and more with less and less, until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” To clarify, here’s how the concept applies to (or used to apply to) the literary world: in the past, in order to share her work, a writer needed a publisher with a staff of editors, publicists, etc., as well as printers, distributors, etc. It’s an intensive and expensive process that was, until rather recently, considered the only way to make books. Now, publishing requires as little as one writer, one computer, and an Internet connection.
Of course, there have been writers working with less for years. Think of handmade and Xeroxed zines, or nimble small pressess. Electric Literature, where I’m co-editor, is one of those indie publishers. In 2012, when we launched Recommended Reading, a weekly digital magazine that publishes short stories curated and introduced by literary heroes, we were unknowingly following Fuller’s principles of ephemeralization. And it’s paid off profoundly: we have a readership of 60,000 and the magazine is not only sustainable but growing. If that’s not impressive, consider that it’s a literary magazine—then consider that it’s free and actually pays its writers.
I hope others in our community will take similar paths. For us, the challenge was to develop a publishing model that was as simple and efficient as possible. The more we do in-house, the fewer resources we need. For instance, we use elegant perennial templates, allowing everything, from cover art to our Web layout, to be easily replicated and customized. We also took a DIY approach to digital: when creating e-books, we don’t want to be beholden to a developer and the associated fees, so everything we needed to know about coding we learned for free online and with some helpful e-mails from a few savvy friends. A final tactic was to repurpose existing technology: rather than building our own platform, we realized Tumblr had everything we needed to publish and distribute our magazine online.
Soon we were editing, proofing, coding, and publishing a magazine with just two full-time staff members. We were doing more with less; in fact, since Recommended Reading is digital, we were actually doing it all with nothing (physical).
The spirit of the indies is resilient, resourceful, and determined. We don’t have the budgets of the major houses, but we don’t have their overhead either. Technology like print-on-demand and e-books democratizes the publishing process, giving us equal or approximate access to the resources big publishers have long had. When Fuller first thought of ephemeralization, he had more humanitarian or “livingry” applications in mind. Physical resources are finite, and by decreasing our dependencies on materials, we diminish our environmental impact and increase our efficiency. A small or indie press is already accustomed to making the most of limited resources. It’s not a question of compromising, but of economizing and streamlining our concepts so that a small staff with big ideas can make a profound impact. By our very nature, we were believers in ephemeralization, and because of that, we’re not going anywhere.