Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Future of Esoteric Publishing?

Image credit: pjmedia

In lieu of my usual book review I decided to open up a conversation with my readers about current trends and the future of esoteric publishing.

With 2013 drawing to a close, and a new year on the horizon, I began to wonder what possibilities the future may hold for esoteric publishing. Certainly we have seen a large increase in the number of independent esoteric publishers in recent years. I expect this trend to continue for a while for as much as the market will permit. However, what I'm most interested in is the form, format, and function that future publications may take. We live in a rapidly changing world where amazing new technologies are adopted quickly by society creating frequent paradigm shifts in how we digest information and how we communicate with one another.

With this in mind, how will new technology change esoteric publishing? E-books have certainly changed the landscape in ways both good and bad. Books are now available instantly, but at a cost, as book piracy has become a worrisome problem. Will digital media continue to expand and slowly overshadow the printed book? I see digital media becoming a stronger force in most time-sensitive (and relatively disposable) publications: newspapers, periodicals, mass-market paperbacks, etc. However, it may not take hold as much within esoteric publishing for the simple fact that many readers tend to see physical books as an iconic feature within esotericism. For some, books are simply a convenient vehicle for information (e-books being even more convenient); for others (myself included) they are a magical fetish, a residence of spirits, or an integral component of their practice.

One of the obvious benefits of digital books/documents is that one can store a massive amount of information on something as small as a flash drive. The website Sacred-Texts currently sells a flash drive containing 1700 esoteric books (books in public domain), stating, "Hold the world's wisdom in the palm of your hand!" It is really incredible when you think about it.

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Aesthetically there is a world difference between an ephemeral occult e-book and a gilded, goat-skin, grimoire. But what if there were a third option -- something in-between the two extremes? I see no reason why publishers cannot blend traditional bookbinding craftsmanship with a bit of ars technica.

Allow me to give you an example:

An old friend of mine recently brought a book to my attention. It is a hardback graphic novel titled, Shifter created by Skip Brittenham and Brian Haberlin and published by Anomaly Publishing. It is essentially an adventure involving characters shape-shifting into various animals. What really makes this book unique is that is utilizes modern technology in a rather novel way using what it calls "Ultimate Augmented Reality", or (UAR), an app one can download from the publisher's site. By using the app the reader is able to access additional information. The reader uses a smart phone and points it at "live" pages. This generates hidden 3D items (via augmented reality) that the reader can interact with by tapping/swiping their smart phone. Additional information and content is added periodically by the publisher extending the life the story by offering more possibilities for the reader. It sounds like something right out of William Gibson's Neuromancer, but it is today's reality.

Image credit: Anomaly Publishing

I believe technological features such as these offer tremendous potential for esoteric publishing. Consider the following possibilities:
  • An occult book with embedded/hidden digital content accessible via smart phone app, such as video footage of the author performing a ritual described in the book or demonstrating personal techniques.
  • A grimiore that has interactive tables and diagrams, or one that generates a virtual ritual space via augmented reality. 
  • An alchemical text allowing the reader to mix virtual chemicals safely as a chemical/spiritual model (no fulminate of mercury explosions for the Jack Parsons of our time!) or shop for labware directly through the book. 
  • A charm book that generates specific spells in real-time that are aligned to current conditions, such as appropriate planetary hours or specific calendar days; again, accessible via smart phone or something like Google Glass.
  • How about a book on Enochian magic that generates 3D elemental tablets and an audio pronunciation guide?  
Embedded content is a whole new way of hiding information in plain sight -- a long tradition in esotericism. Books could open up in ways previously unimaginable for those willing to look deep enough. I needn't remind anyone that the very word 'occult' means hidden. Thus, one could look at all this as a 21st century take on a very told tradition.

I should note that the possibilities described above should not be added as simple gimmicks or games, but rather used as serious tools intended to assist the reader. 

Granted, some of these ideas would require innovative software development. However, publishers/authors could still utilize modern technology by doing something as simple as including a printed QR code to take readers instantly to relevant internet links.
Image credit: Wikipedia

Technology aside, there are still other ways in which publishers and authors could creatively add layers of esoteric content to their works. For example, I have often wondered why it is that very few esoteric books experiment with layout and typesetting, that is, making the text itself a magical sigil of sorts. If one is interested in seeing a marvelous example of creative text I would suggest picking up a copy of Mark Z. Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves. The book has achieved cult status among fans. The book is a massive cypher, a modern classic of metafiction. Perceptive readers are still deciphering the text and finding new hidden content over 13 years after the book's publication. 

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An example of HOS's eccentric text layout. Photo credit: The Dreadful Cafe

Current trends:

Some of my readers may have noticed an increase in hand-made accouterments accompanying deluxe editions: elaborate slipcases & chemises, decorative wood boxes, hand-made divination tools -- even small bags of animal bones. A couple decades ago we began to see books including talismans hand-drawn by the author, like the ones accompanying many of Andrew Chumbley's first limited editions. Many of these were roughly the size of a large bookmark. Today this tradition continues, exhibiting a wide array of materials, impressive craftsmanship, and notable originality.

Xoasis Publications recently announced a limited edition (Death Edition) of The Box of Pandora by Sheila Undi that actually comes inside an ornately carved ebony box. The box also has a lock, and considering the title, one should expect nothing less. The 'Devotee Special Edition' of Black Magic Evocation of the Shem ha Mephorash by G. de Laval, published by Aeon Sophia Press, also comes inside an intricately carved, custom, wooden box, as did the deluxe edition of David Beth's Voudon Gnosis, published by Fulgur Ltd.. Ouroboros Press recently released 'THE URN' edition of Zoroaster's Telescope. Besides the beautiful vellum-bound book, each copy includes 122 hexagonal etched wood tiles used for a divination system detailed in the book. It is a very small edition -- only 9 sets were made.

The examples given above represent a wonderful marriage of the bookbinder and woodworker's respective arts. I suspect we will see more of this in coming years, though it is easy to see how this sort of thing could get a bit carried away. For example, I doubt I would buy a special edition of anything that came with a 2 foot statue, or a vial of the author's blood. In my opinion, books should come with items people actually want and that serve a purpose. My suggestion to publishers is to keep such items relative to the work. Furthermore, extra items should be practical and either serve as protective housing for the book or compliment it in some way, like a tool. 'THE URN' edition of Zoroaster's Telescope is perhaps the best example of the latter; the wood tiles are a key component of what the book is all about.

Some of you may also have noticed rapidly climbing prices of some deluxe and "super-deluxe" editions. I refer to the original sale price, not the aftermarket price, which is often absurdly inflated to the point of being ridiculous (check out eBay for a good laugh). Just a few years ago $300 was generally considered the top of the high end for most deluxe editions (still an outlandish sum for most readers). Things have changed. This is because some books are becoming even more lavish. Recently I have seen new publications listing a pre-order price over $700. I think this nears the ceiling of what most customers are willing to spend on a new book, even the most rabid collectors, though I could be proven wrong.

Without a doubt the bar has been raised. In coming years I foresee books bound in more exotic leathers/hides and also the revival of old bookbinding techniques, like gauffered edges (see photo below). We haven't quite reached the 'bound in human skin' point, but publishers are getting far more inventive and willing to push the boundaries of bookbinding.  I am not sure if this is a result of increased competition in the market or not. Amazing publications that generate a lot of 'buzz' will certainly make a publisher stand out. It could also be that publishers realize there is less risk involved when investing in very expensive editions now that deluxe editions (even super-deluxe editions) have a proven track record of selling out.

Example of gauffered edges. Imagine a book like the one shown above with magical insignia along the edges.
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Generally speaking my estimation for increasing prices is due to two common market traits:
  • Quality: Publishers have noticed that customers are willing to pay premium prices for high quality books, often made using hard-to-find and exotic materials (like python skin). A few recent books have been of startling quality and construction; last year's Esoteric Book of the Year winner, Devils and Spirits is a good example. Publishers are meeting the market demand and customers are getting what they pay for. 
  • Scarcity: Some books are priced very high, not because of their lavish construction, but simply because they are printed in extremely small editions and expected to sell out quickly. In such cases it is good practice to be a bit leery of high-priced small print-runs intended to create artificial scarcity. Ask yourself, Would the book be worth the price if there were thousands available? Reputable publishers sell books at a reasonable debut price regardless of how small the print run is. One can see a similar pricing model in the scotch whiskey market (I love using whiskey to illustrate a point). One cannot gauge the quality of scotch by the price alone. Some bottles are priced at astronomical prices due to extremely low supply. Thus, a rare $300 bottle of whiskey from a mothballed distillery may actually be of inferior quality when compared to a commonly available $50 bottle. It is priced high only because of its rarity. 
So, readers and collectors will have to decided what is most important to them: rarity, quality, content (at all costs?), or all of these. And as always, caveat emptor.

I invite my readers to share your thoughts and opinions about current trends in esoteric publishing, and also any ideas and prognostications about what the future may hold. What would you like to see?

In my next post will announce the 2013 awards for Esoteric Book of the Year.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year,
B. Balkan