Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Goldilocks Curve - Umberto Tosi

What we can do now seemed like an impossible dream twenty years ago when I first became involved with direct, digital publishing. Yet, as an indie writer in the midst of reading another book for release, I've gone from being awed by the digital tools at my disposal to feeling frustrated with their limitations. How fickle and ungrateful can we creative types get?

By the late 1990s, publishers for which I had worked had been using digital technology for almost a decade - eg., word processing, and desktop publishing. But the process had remained industrial - requiring costly, professional software, high-speed printing presses, and distribution channels that requred sizeable, although diminishing, capitalization that was out of the reach for most writers -- even successful ones. As always, futurist predictions aside, everyone in the business assumed that the status quo would be a forever thing -- even those running the high-tech business magazines for which I freelanced interviews.

In 1998 -- during what we didn't realize was practically the Jurrasic Age of the Internet Age  -- I joined a hotshot, Silicon Valley startup called MightyWords.com. It's founder and CEO Chris MacAskill and our quickly assembled merry band of programmers, editors, designers and marketeers set up what became the first online platform that allowed writers -- and anyone else -- to publish and distribute their own works directly to the public online.

MacCaskill was fresh from the windfall success of taking his online bookstore -- Fatbrain, Inc, -- a online bookstore prototype of Amazon -- public. As its spin-off, Mightywords garnered millions in venture capital backing -- including major funding from Vulcan Capital the multi-billion dollar investment firm of Microsoft's co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen.

The late, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen
Mightywords was more than a concept. It created and operated a fully functioning online publishing platform through which hundreds of authors and indie publishers could sell their works directly. The interface and business architecture strongly resembled what was to evolve a decade later at Amazon, Nook and other digital book venues. Any author could publish a work through it, in return for a share of royalties. The Mightywords Website would display image/cover display, thumbnails, summaries prices, reviews, etc., with a mechanism for online credit card payment and delivery to readers.

Delivery was the rub. There were few tablets and no smartphones then to accomodate what we would call ebooks now. The works were delivered in PDF online allowing the purchaser to open and print the work at home or office, and/or to read onscreen. The limitation rendered long, book length works impractical -- yet not impossible to sell. Mightywords' business plan nevertheless project a billion-dollar market for medium-length works, eg. -- short stories, novellas, reports, studies (works too long to deliver as attachments and too short to fit the scale-economics of traditional printing. Mightywords also provided our indie-author partners with services still not offered by Amazon - including originating blogs, writeups and interviews of featured authors.

Mystery writers Pamela & Mary O'Shaughnessy
The limitations didn't seem to phase the hundreds of authors who soon were publishing through the Mightywords channel -- including a star list of works by Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Arthur C. Clark, and their ilk, plus successful midlist authors who had been wise enough to retain the digitial rights to their previously published works that they were free to offer through us (eg. the best-selling, Perri O'Shaughnessy Mysteries and Nina Riley detective stories by Northern California sister-collaborators Mary and Pamela O'Shaughnessy.)

The creative energy of Mightywords' self-publishers exceeded the technological innovation of the enterprise. Some of it raised eyebrows among those looking for profit curves, not necessarily cultural ones, and had envisioned MightyWords as more of a business-to-business enterprise than a retail portal -- B2B being Wall Streets flavor-of-the-month at the time.  (Remember, this was just prior to the current era of social media whose business model thrived on clicks and user-supplied content.

I'd give author game-creator Joseph Matheny first prize for sweepingly imaginative use of the medium to play with an entirely new literary form beyond what we concieved -- or, at first, knew what to make of. To this day, Matheny declines to state whether he intended his novel-length work (Ong's Hat: The Beginning, first offered for sale in as a book form through Mightywords), as fiction or nonfiction. Its narrative structure allows it to be enjoyed as a speculative fiction. Through hyperlinks that invite readers to various online sites in which they can interact with content, it also invites readers on an immerrsive, interactive adventure. Internet scholars and critics tag it as the first of many Alternate Reality Games (ARG), a transmedia form that has evolved in complexity and popularity over the past twenty years since Ong's Hat was first released. (This interactivity was a stretch given the limitations of supporting digital platforms at the time - but nevertheless clearly and breathtakingly feasible in terms of its promise.

The author spun his tale around a nontoxic, benign (Remember those?) conspiracy theory that had been floating around chat-rooms for years. The conspiracy stories purported that the real ghost town of Ong's Hat, New Jersey, had been the site of secret experiments by rogue scientists from the underground "Institute of Chaos" who opened an interdimensional portal - using a machine dubbed "The Egg" - through which of the town's former resident's had disappeared. This led to a loosely structured, Internet game in which participants traded information about sighting of Ong's Hat evidence and former residents.

Matheny's work expanded on this plot twist. It follows characters who had used the portal to escape the town after a deadly, toxic spill from a nearby chemical factory.  Instead of using roads, the characters travel inter-dimensionally. Readers are invited to use hyperlinks to track the characters' appearances in verious other locals, as well as report their own sightings, adding to the narrative. The work remains available through Matheny's website and other venues, including Amazon.

The interdimenstional "Egg" from Ong's Hat
Regrettably, unlike the myths of Ong's Hat, Mightywords proved ephemeral. One minute it was poised for an ISP that would made even staffers like myself who had been given founders' stock incredibly rich overnight. The next minute it fell burning like Icarus from the Silicon Valley sun. The high tech bubble burst in 2001, taking lots of startups with it. Our backers pulled away and pressured MacAskill to close down and sell the tecchnology - sans its creative content, which was owned after all by the authors. Barnes & Noble, which had also invested in the venture, stepped forward and took away what was left of both Fatbrain and Mightywords. Ironically, this could have given B&N a competitive advantage over the then still fledgling Amazon. But B&N remained wedded to its brick-and-mortar, trad-publishing business model and let Jeff Bezos eat its lunch, as we all know now.

Another alternative would have been for Mightywords to have hunkered down and continuted to develop itself as a digital publishing platform - building on what it had developed until it either joined with or became competitive with other online book and product sellers. But either MacAskill nor any of the high-tech investor crowd seemed to have any stomach for anything but quick investor money killings from Wall Street. Se la street!

One can be too far ahead of the curve. Timing is everything when it comes to technological innovation. Your new idea has to appeal to Goldilocks and be neither too hot and nor too cold. It might be different for creative ideas like Matheny's opus. Often the greatest ideas show up in the early days of a form -- like Cervantes' Don Quixote, which remains unchallenged as the first major Western European novel and still among its greatest. Maybe if I had read Matheny's instructions carefully enough, I could have found that interdimensional egg machine back to the some alternative future where things would have worked out differently.

There is a parallel between the mythical interdimensional disappearence of Ong's Hat, New Jersey, and of the now vanished Mightywords, of which hardly a wisp remains onlinr. The enterprise - which had taken up two floors of a large, Silicon Valley office park building, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared all shiny and bright with its millions in venture capital loose change. I nearly forgot the plac myself as I continued on my quotidian path meanwhile, using my vaunted founder's stock certificates as birdcage liners. Nonetheless, I'm happy to be able to say that I was there at the birth of indie digital publishing in any case. It's also worth noting, that as far as we have come since Mightywords' early, online book delivery system, we've yet to equal the creative scope of how digital storytelling could evolve online. The current platforms, however efficient, don't allow for much Ong's-Hat-style interdimensionality, or for inserting a modest hyperlink, or a video clip, or sound, or such that is available to me right now in writing this modest blog, even. Perhaps moving forward will involve checking back for stuff we've left along the curve we're always trying to get ahead of.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoƫ Tosi - nine grandchildren, three great grandchildren. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com

7 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

As fascinating as ever, Umberto - and congratulations at being in the vanguard of all those things that have proved to be so revolutionary (and unforeseeable). It chimed particularly with me because I recently flipped through some diary entries I made back in the early 90s, in which I was surprised to read that I was 'writing macros' (???) and using discs to load Word for Windows programmes into an Amstrad. I wonder what happened to that apparently tech-savvy bloke.

Griselda Heppel said...

This is fascinating. A perfect example of technology and ideas evolving faster than the media needed (tablets, smartphones) to distribute it. As you say, one can be too far ahead of the curve. How frustrating for you and your colleagues to have been right there at the birth of systems that Amazon and others would pounce on a decade later, to make use of the brilliant new publishing possibilities, only for it all to be taken out of your hands.

As for the Interdimensional Egg - I WANT ONE.

Sunil said...

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Cecilia Peartree said...

I also find it a bit strange that books haven't really evolved to occupy the technology, so to speak - though I suppose much of that development has been in the computer game field instead, and there is a different market for that. One of my sons used to be much more involved in the stories behind computer games than he was in fiction books as he was growing up.
I wonder if some of the innovative authors of the past would have made more of the arrival of digital books - James Joyce, for instance.
(personally I prefer conventional story-telling anyway)

Umberto Tosi said...

I'm with you, Griselda: Interdimesional eggs for all! Thanks to you, Bill, Scecilia and Sunil for your comments. So many ironies, so little time. I prefer conventional storytelling myself as well, but there is a long tradition of interactive tales going back into oral traditions. There was and still is no substitute for good storytelling - digital or otherwise - but it's nice to have many avenues open.

Joseph Matheny said...

Thanks for the kind words. I remember Mightwords/Fatbrain fondly. Their Marketing Manager, Judy, an old friend from Adobe steered me in their direction because she knew I was making PDF interactive books in my spare time while employed in the Acrobat/IPD division there. One small correction, I haven't been "mum" on the subject of "was it intended as fiction or not" for a very long time. For a while, it played into the "This is not a Game or Is It?" aspect of the project but I finally began to talk openly in the media about the project and its intentions after the publication of the University book by Kinsella on the subject. ("Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong's Hat") Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Sandra Horn said...

You have boggled my mind now, Umberto (techie rabbit alert) but I love your last sentence. Worthy of being in scribed on walls everywhere.