Thursday, October 18, 2012

Early e-publishing: 30 Million Book Giveaway! (circa 1995)

Recently I was combing through back issues of a now-defunct New York literary magazine, the very one in which I first published short fiction. That story, "What was Slain in the Sun," appeared in the penultimate issue of Christopher Street, in November of 1995. I was looking for the magazine's circulation figures (this to do with eligibility criteria for a short story contest), but what I found was more interesting than that.

There was an advertisement in pretty much every issue of Christopher Street that I looked at in the library stacks at UC Berkeley, where I work. The advertisement was printed as a full page in many issues, and a half-page in the issue in which my story appeared. It promoted a book written by the woman with whom I'd corresponded when my story was accepted for publication, Neenyah Ostram. The book she was promoting in 1995 was: America's Biggest Cover-Up: 50 More Things Everyone Should Know About the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic And Its Link to AIDS.

I haven't read the book, so I won't speak to its subject matter. What called my attention to the ad was this bold callout, seemingly so naive from a distance of (only) 17 years:
How do you give 30 million copies of a book away? On the Internet.

It gets better:
For those of you who know your way around the Internet, access to the Electronic Newsstand is free and available through the Newsstand Home Page at URL and via gopher or telnet. Please gopher or telnet and login as enews.

For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet, we suggest that you modem yourself to your nearest bookstore and buy and old-fashioned hard-cover copy of AMERICA'S BIGGEST COVER-UP. [...]
For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet? Port numbers in a URL? Gopher? Telnet? It's like discovering evidence of a lost civilization!!

What's "gopher" -- both the noun and verb? Gopher was a widely used protocol for distributing documents over the early internet. It presented text menus for retrieving hierarchically organized documents, which made sense in a world in which many computer systems handled text display much better than graphics. Gopher lost out to the web, as we all know now. It was invented at U. Minnesota.

Telnet was (and is) a protocol for opening interactive, text-oriented communication sessions with remote computers. It was superseded by the still very broadly used SSH protocol, which handles the same sort of communication securely (so communications between computers can't be intercepted by tapping the 'wire' between the legitimate parties to data exchange).

I know, I know, it's like trying to explain rotary phones to today's elementary school kids. Or landlines. Grandpa, what's a modem?

Leaving aside the trip down Ancient Technology Lane, what really struck me about the ad for Ostrom's book was how clearly it anticipated the sea change in book distribution that electronic formats would make possible -- a dozen years before the explosion of e-books detonated by the Kindle in 2007, and fueled now by the likes of Smashwords and iTunes and Google Play in addition to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. These sea changes are roiling the publishing industry, hard, to this day. I don't suppose that Ostrom's work was read by all 30 million subscribers to 1995's Electronic Newsstand, but it could have been. For free.

Remarkable what you can find in the stacks of a library, at the border between the pre-digital world and the one in which we're immersed today.

Thanks to wackystuff for the rotary phone image, via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
My short story "Martin's Pond" published as an e-book
Are dust bunnies an argument for e-books?
Getting a grip on attention span
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation

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