Submitted: The Two Sides Team January 31, 2014
At a time when e-book sales seem to be flattening, there is something to be learned from Kevin Kelly's self-published print catalog, a collection of reviews accrued from a website over the years.
David Carr, The New York Times
January 5, 2014
Kevin Kelly is not a dumb guy, far from it actually. As the founding executive editor of Wired and one of the people who helped build The Well, among the earliest online communities, he has done a good job of seeing what is coming next for decades.
But last year, he had what sounded to me like a dumb idea. Mr. Kelly edits and owns Cool Tools, a website that writes about neat stuff and makes small money off referral revenue from Amazon when people proceed to buy some of those things. He decided to edit the thousands of reviews that had accrued over the last 10 years into a self-published print catalog, also called 'Cool Tools' which he would then sell for $39.99.
So, to review, his idea was to manufacture a floppy 472-page catalog that would weigh 4.5 pounds, full of buying advice that had already appeared free on the web, essentially turning weightless pixels into bulky bundles of atoms. To make it happen, he crowdsourced designs from all over the world, found a printer in China and then arranged for shipping and distribution. It all seemed a little quixotic and, well, beside the point.
Except the first printing of 10,000 copies, just in time for Christmas, sold out immediately, a second printing of 12,000 will go on sale at Amazon next week and a third printing of 20,000 copies is underway. So, not so dumb after all.
"It surprised me as well," he said by phone from his home office in Pacifica, Calif. "I wish I had known. Paper is really unnecessary for a lot of things, but very good at certain things. And this turned out to be one of them."
The book, which is full of detailed reviews of all manner of products, along with idiosyncratic illustrations, has a thrown-together appeal that invites browsing of another sort. As it turns out, there is something magical in the book's juxtaposition of stuff, folklore and product reviews, sort of like a modern version of the Whole Earth Catalog, a chatty, user-generated publication that prefigured the web and that Mr. Kelly once edited.
"There is something about having that large expanse of real estate in your lap, something about the format, that is extremely satisfying," he said. "Having many different things you may be interested in on a page, as opposed to a single thing surrounded by ads as it is on the web, leads to the formation of different connections and leads to a different experience."
Publishers who turned out under-designed and under-edited books and magazines in the Internet age have learned the hard way that consumers expect excellence in print. Just as McSweeney's grand experimental newspaper Panorama suggested in 2009, and as big, beautiful magazines like Vogue prove every month, print is not dead, it simply has some very specific attributes that need to be leveraged. Good printed work includes a mix of elements in which juxtaposition and tempo tell their own story, the kind of story best told with ink and paper.
At a time when e-book sales seem to be flattening, there is something to be learned from Mr. Kelly's self-published curio. Print continues to be a remarkable technology, if not as lucrative as it used to be, with its own durable glories. I was just on vacation with five women, I was related to all of them, so don't get any ideas and watched as a single paperback of Cheryl Strayed's magnificent 'Wild' was passed around, discussed and shared. I've never seen that kind of interaction over an e-book. And at Christmas, I spent time showing my daughter's boyfriend 'Cool Tools,' with its advice on hitchhiking, finding the most practical stapler, renting a bulldozer or building an igloo. With a frantic, jam-packed design and improbable juxtapositions, it's a big, sprawling wonder of a book, half coffee-table tome and half Sears catalog of old. Having it in my hands made me happy. Cool Tools, both the website and the book, is not about getting more things, or expensive gadgets, but about finding the right stuff. For me, it was the $9 AccuSharp Knife Sharpener, remarkably useful because it makes something I already have an indifferent set of kitchen knives, much more valuable. 'Cool Tools' is an artifact about other artifacts, but it is not pro-consumption, in fact, there is an ecstatic review about a book that extols the benefits of decluttering your life. At its best, 'Cool Tools' is a guide to getting that one true thing, a device, a piece of clothing, a tool, that will make daily life better.
As practitioners of consumption, Americans lead poorly edited lives. We end up with basements and attics full of items that looked amazing in the store or online, but that lost their sparkle once they left the Bubble Wrap. 'Cool Tools' fits into a growing wave of the so-called maker culture, a movement toward building real, actual things with our own two hands.
Mr. Kelly, who is often both grandiose and correct in his pronouncements, says he believes that a third industrial revolution is stirring, adding that the stuff in his book is 'aimed at small groups, decentralized communities, the do-it-yourselfer, and the self-educated.'
"These are tools to make us better humans," he said.
Community workshops, with an array of tools and equipment for building things in metal and wood, are springing up and offering membership plans the way gyms do. Mr. Kelly points out that a new service allows people to drive their car to the airport and then rent it out while they are gone. The growing possibilities of 3-D printing are further democratizing the manufacturing process.
Of course, believing we can consume our way to a better future is a very American impulse, but Mr. Kelly argues that 'access to something is going to be far more important than actually owning it.' He points to digital books and says that owning them will seem pass, pretty quickly, predicting that Amazon and others will soon move to all-access memberships like Netflix.
"I am trying to maximize the number of great technologies that people have with which to express their creativity, but at the same time, I am trying to minimize the number of tools in my own life," he said. "I think that function, of choosing what you actually need and can use, is going to get more and more complicated."
The book, he says, "is not a rejection of digital technology. We are just in the early days of what e-books are going to be and no one says that it is going to be a flat, one-size fits all device in the future. But for now, print seemed like the best way to go with this project."
It wasn't easy. When he was getting the book printed, he received a call asking if his office had a loading dock. Mr. Kelly, who works from home, said hopefully, "I have a garage." That, he was told, would not suffice, so he arranged for a book distributor to take delivery.
Having spent much of his life online, Mr. Kelly is suddenly living in a very physical world. "Right now, I have 70 metric tons of books headed my way on a ship," he said. "I had to figure out where they were all going."