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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

DYI in the Age of the Internet

We used to live in a top down culture. There were few people who could get their work out, but those who managed to get through the hurdles were likely to become famous just because there were so few alternatives. The cultural history of the last thirty years has been a slow movement away from having media dictated to us to creating our own.

It started out with Zines. People with unique philosophies or tastes in music created documents – frequently handwritten/drawn and distributed via that photocopier sitting in the corner at work – to spread to those with similar interests. Layout was a challenge and it was hard to find out about them without first getting into the culture, but they were lifelines for those who cared about a non-mainstream topic. The next phase was home recording. Sure you couldn’t get studio quality sound when you distributed your own EP on cassette tape, but you could get something sellable for your concerts. The original copies of Junta and Lawn Boy were sold at Phish shows that way.

As technology moved on, it became easier to create such products. Layout programs let fan works look like magazines. Home studio equipment approached asymptotically to that of the professionals. Most importantly, the Internet started to take over. This removed the final obstacles of distribution and discoverability. The power of the major labels, of the book publishers was that they were the gatekeepers. Without their work, it was impossible for your material to reach the greater world. While they still serve a purpose in terms of quality control, marketing, and branding, their role is much smaller now. Over the course of the past few months, I discovered how much could be done without them.

I’ve had an image of a book in my head for a while. Summer 1994 was the defining time of my time seeing music. Not only did I see some incredible concerts and have some interactions with the band that had long lasting effects, but I had a chance to explore the country. It was a much different experience then, both in terms of how travel worked and the venues that Phish were playing. What I envisioned was one part show review, one part personal adventure, and one part the history of the area that the band was playing. While I knew what I wanted it to look like, I had no idea what the interest level would be. Instead of worrying about that, I just wrote.

I spent a year of my life working on this project. My spare time was writing, researching, and rewriting. I was starting to get close to my self imposed deadline of the 20th anniversary of the Bomb Factory show, but I still had one open question: how would I get this book out to the world? A niche publication like this wasn’t likely to attract the interest of a publisher but now there are other options.

There are times when it pays to live in a tech hub. I was at a Halloween party with a gaming/geek crowd. Someone was playing “Kerbal “:https://kerbalspaceprogram.com/ there and I was fascinated. He was trying to talk me into getting it, but I explained that I already had a project that was working on. It turned out that he had a lot of friends who had put out books through Amazon’s Createspace program. I investigated it and quickly saw two things: royalties were better on that site than the others I had looked at and they would immediately make the book available through Amazon and (in theory) Kindle.

The other thing that technology has created is oodles of experts in other fields. While cameras and lenses are still expensive, people no longer have to pay for film and the developing of it. This makes it easier to learn how to improve your photography skills by doing. For a book about travel in 1994, a photo of an Interstate 94 sign would work. My wife is the photographer of the family. She drove out to Montana over a weekend and found the perfect shot. I then asked another friend – Kym Bixler – who had graphic design skills to help with the cover layout.

While I relied on some friends, beta readers, and editors, one of the great side effects of this project was how much I got to learn about the publishing process. Some of it is stupid and trivial knowledge (e.g. Microsoft Word for the Mac will not export fonts, so you really need to use Open Office to deliver a high quality PDF file to be published) but others are fascinating. I now know how to set gutters and justify files. When I was having trouble getting the footnotes to line up correctly in the Kindle edition, it suddenly clicked that the file was HTML and it could be edited like any other webpage. The learning curve to producing a book was surprisingly flat.

The flip to making publication easier is that it’s harder for any one book to sell. Right after publication, This Has All Been Wonderful peaked at being the 515th most sold book on Amazon, but it’s not exactly going to make me (or the Mockingbird Foundation, to whom I will be sending some of the proceeds) rich by any means. That’s the flip side of increased access. It’s never been easier to become a minor success, never harder to make a living out of it. Wealth might elude, but there’s a joy in creating a product that makes people happy. The positive feedback I’ve received has made the past year worthwhile.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.

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