We Don’t Need No Education

My first sight of Germany comes as the pilot banks hard over Berlin. We’ve been in the air for just over nine hours, with nothing but the Atlantic and clouds below. And suddenly there’s a stark white landscape with buildings sticking up out of a dusting of fresh snow. I’ve gone from 80 degrees in South Florida to below freezing in Berlin, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m met at the airport by my cultural attache. Okay . . . it’s a woman driving a taxi, and she’s not really there for me; she’s there for any fare. But the fates have placed us together, me and this woman with copious amounts of makeup over her wrinkles and other signs of heavy wear. She looks rough, but her rearview mirror is full of smiles. And her taste in music is impeccable.

The entire way to the hotel, she blasts American rock. The first song out of the gate, I shit you not, is Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. As soon as it comes on, the cab driver says “Good” and cranks the knob (well, she taps the volume button on her phone, which is strapped to the dash — but there’s no tapping of buttons in rock and roll, there’s the cranking of knobs). We dart through traffic and drifting snow and bang our heads and sing much too loudly, feeding off each other’s inability to carry a tune, and I’m thinking how damn perfect this song is for an introduction to Berlin.

In publishing, walls are often spoke of. There are walls and then there are gates through them, manned by the people who we hope might let us pass. “Papers,” they say, which is to ask for a query letter. “Papers,” which means they don’t look at unagented submissions. “Papers,” or: May I see your prior publications?

The last time the walls of publishing crumbled, it wasn’t far from where I sit right now, and it was the best thing to ever happen to publishing. A man named Guttenberg perfected the moveable type printing press, an invention that many were tinkering with and improving, and suddenly publishing was open to exponentially more people. This terrified the clergy and those whose job it was to copy books out by hand, but it was liberating for readers, storytellers, educators, pontificators, and everyone else. The world was changed.

The next great revolution in publishing would come from an unlikely source. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee invented html, an odd improvement on typesetting if there’s ever been one. With strange brackets and snippets of code, text could displayed across myriad devices. The World Wide Web emerged, and now anyone could publish their thoughts, ideas, and stories to an audience of unprecedented scope. Words could travel near instantaneously to readers anywhere. It was radio without the static and made more permanent. As access to computers grew, the cost of publication diminished to near zero. A library card and a thought — nothing more.

Thirty years later, the e-book revolution begins to etch away at yet another wall. I find it fitting that the code at the heart of every e-book is the same html Berners-Lee invented to display webpages. And while teeth are once again being gnashed, what is good for the writer and the reader will end up being good for the clergy of publishing. Publishing houses are seeing improved profit margins. Readership is up (often measured as the same people reading more titles than ever before). And writership is up (a horrible neologism. I apologize).

E-books are simply another take on moveable type. The same advantages that make it possible for me to publish and distribute hundreds of thousands of books from my pajamas makes it similarly affordable for publishers to do the same millions of times over (mental image of boardrooms full of pajama-clad MFAs). There will be quacks like me printing pamphlets and hawking them on street corners. And there will be embossed collections of Shakespeare’s works and gilded Bibles. And everything in between.

I have five interviews lined up for today here in Berlin and another handful tomorrow. I expect I’ll be asked at least a half-dozen times why I chose to self-publish. The answer is simple: I just happened to be approaching a wall the moment it collapsed. It was simple timing. The same thing happened to all those people who wanted the ability to publish articles and public journals right as html came along. Or those who wanted to crank out a thousand copies of a book just as Gutenberg’s machines were warming up. I’ve always wanted to write. A path opened up. I’m walking it.

Here in Berlin, there are only scraps of the old wall left to go see. More interesting is the outline of the foundation of the wall. It’s embedded in the ground as a band of metal that snakes throughout the city. People step over with little thought a barrier that used to confound millions. And that’s the future for publishing. There will be a period where we scream at the top of piles of rubble and rebar. Some will gather chunks as souvenirs. But a time will come when more and more self-published authors sign with major houses and more and more major publishers self-publish on the side, and the next thing you know, we are moving back and forth in places where people used to demand to see our papers.

I know what I plan on saying today. I self-published because I wanted to be published. That’s it. And suddenly, there were no walls and no gates. There was no reason I couldn’t be published. There was just a storyteller hoping for an audience. There was code that displays words on myriad devices. As soon as these tools were invented, many of us seized them. We were at the right place at the right time, approaching a wall right as it fell.

10 responses to “We Don’t Need No Education”

  1. A thoughtful and well-written piece. It certainly is a brave new world we live in today. I do hope as this revolution in publishing is sifted through time that it remains mostly good, and the negative aspects of the changes are easily dealt with. Growth always requires a little pain and resistance, doesn’t it?

  2. A very nice piece with an appropriate analogy, Hugh. Try to get to see Check Point Charlie if you can, that’s a cool place to visit.

  3. Bravo. One of your best pieces.

  4. Hell, I can imagine that! I have been in Berlin many times and this city is just perfect for Pink Floyd! You know, we Russians have a special relation to this city…

  5. :::Slow, respectful clap.:::

  6. You are a sorcerer reaching out to elusive tendrils of magic and drawing them to a focus for your spell! This post is charged with that energy, creating a powerful picture and telling a moving history.

  7. Enjoy your trip! I’d love to go back to Germany. try the Jagerschnitzel and Weissen.

    ” She looks rough, but her rearview mirror is full of smiles.”

    Cultural tip: If a German woman smiles at a man she’s never met, especially an older woman, she’s flirting.

    Did you wear another tight t-shirt despite the freezing weather? C’mon, you can tell us.

  8. Truly awesome, Hugh. I love the Gutenberg comparison married to breaking through the Wall.

    I was in Germany in December, and they sure do love their American classic rock. It was everywhere.

    Hope your sleep cycle isn’t too umgekehrt!

  9. williamjacques@gmail.com Avatar

    GREAT Post! This is better than many columns I have read in the NYT. Thanks.

  10. Berlin is one of my favorite cities. Good food (typically from all over europe), great entertainment, and impressive sites. The Haus at Check Point Charlie is a must see.

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