Modern Publishing and the Cult of Metadata

Odyssey Alternative American Title and Cover

“We are wrestling with your title” complained to me an editor after presenting the English edition of my book at his publishing company’s sales conference. The team of specialists reached an agreement that my title – Atlas of Prejudice, already a bestseller on the German market – didn’t make sense to Americans and they wouldn’t connect it with the theme of the book, which is… well, prejudice.

Another huge obstacle was the fact that it lacked a subtitle. “We need something for the metadata” lamented the editor.

If by chance you are interested in the evolution of religion, maybe you should take a look at the status of metadata in modern publishing. I am sure you’ll encounter a lot of interesting analogies. In both cases what used to be a practical process (stargazing and cataloging) morphed into mystical cult. Just like that. Because life is not complicated enough.

I went to the publisher’s site to check the titles from the catalog. It was a small subsidiary of a publishing mastodon, which for the purposes of discretion I shall call “Company X”.

There was barely a book title which wasn’t sacrificed on the altar of Metadata. I picked a random one and started counting. It contained 21 words and 87 characters (without spaces). To give you a visual idea of its sheer volume, here it is with all the letters replaced by an “x”:

Xxxx Xx Xxxxxxxx, X Xxxxxx: Xxx X Xxx Xxxxxxxx, Xxxx Xxxxxx, xxx Xxx Xx Xxxx Xxxx xx xxx Xxx Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx

Informative. It would certainly impress if you get asked “What’s the title of your book?” at a party. If you manage to memorize it, that is. Or if your new acquaintance doesn’t fall asleep in the middle of it.

But enough irony, imagine something truly disturbing. Let say Homer was a contemporary author and he just submitted the Odyssey to a big publisher.

Now picture a conference room full of people most of which have never created anything in their lives but who, for some obscure reason, feel very knowledgeable about art and literature.

“Odyssey?” asks salesperson Nr.1, “What kind of title is this? What does it say to people?”

“I fail to see the connection between title and content. It feels random!” agrees salesperson Nr.2.

“Naming a book after a character is the worst thing you can do, Mr. Homer!” says salesperson Nr.3. “The title is the packaging of your book, the place where you should announce its content to your potential readers. If you fail with the announcement, your book will not sell.”

Somehow this doesn’t sound convincing to Homer because he knows he’s not trying to sell chocolate bars but salesperson Nr.3 doesn’t really care. “There needs to be a clear connection to the content. Wait… How about The Homesick Man?”

“Much better!” cheerfully agrees salesperson Nr.4

Saleperson Nr.5 nods in quiet approval, looking at his wrist watch. (Yes, those people still wear them!)

“However,” continues Salesperson Nr.3 “it still lacks intrigue. How about the Homesick Pleasure Seeker?”

“Excuse me but he wasn’t exactly searching for pleasure, just for the way home.” objects Homer.

“Didn’t he have a romance with a nymph at some point? That’s sounds like one hell of a pleasure to me!” says Salesperson Nr.6.

Problem resolved, end of story. I have provided the cover for your visual amusement. The only thing left to do is tweak several titles by Arthur C. Clarke, so we can keep the cultural references intact. Does 2001: A Homesick Pleasure Seeker in Space sound good to you? Awesome, moving on… Oh wait, let’s re-title that Bowie album too. A Sick Pleasure in Space? Now we’re done.

Don’t get me wrong, metadata, just like money, is a wonderful thing.

Metadata helps you catalog existing products. It speeds up discovery and distribution of content. That means it’s something that should always come after and be explicitly separate from content creation. If you put it ahead of it and let it influence the content itself, it turns into a parasite, slowly killing its host and ensuring its own demise in the process because just like money, metadata cannot exist independently. If there are no goods to sell, money is just paper. If there are no books, metadata is just useless bureaucratic gibberish.

This simple truth is already evident as far as web sites and search engine optimization is concerned. This is why Google is strictly against putting an emphasis on metadata and may even punish webmasters who do it:

Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals.

What print publishers haven’t realized yet is that they are playing with fire. In a decade their obese titles will be as ridiculous as all those semi-double music albums from the dawn of the CD era. There is a reason why immediacy is essential to art. It’s because art is a form of communication, not of cataloging content. When I meet somebody, the last thing I want to see is his birth certificate. Same with books.

The only difference between the grotesque abuse of metadata and money is that while we can always recognize the emergence of an economic crisis by its immediate effects, a cultural crisis is harder to spot. It doesn’t have immediate, tangible signs which can help us ring an alarm. But the indirect evidence, like book titles stretched into oblivion, is overwhelming.

How To Pray Like a Good Christian

Postmodern Prayer

There was a time when indulgence had its price and churches had menus like restaurants. You could order forgiveness as an appetizer, a whole 3-course spiritual cleansing or a special “Happy Repenting Murderer” combo with extra fries. The priests even had their own jingles like this one courtesy of Johann Tetzel, the Captain Sanders of the time:

When the coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from the purgatory springs!

Those days of virtue are long gone. The rampant spiritual inflation of our superficial age brutally stripped off their value like a sexually repressed priest yearning for ejaculation.

Sensing the impending danger, the Pope decided to use the same old tactic desperate brands use when they see their profits nosedive: low-margin product discounts. The Holy Father, after attending a business conference with several demons, decided to drastically discount the price of purgatory stay. There’s a catch of course. To take advantage of the discount, you must follow him on Twitter.

Of course if you are one of those Christians who don’t treat their god as a nanny you may simply not care. But honestly, how many times have you entered a church without somebody promising you something in return? Eternal life, success, forgiveness of sins, protection from the gay penises? When was the last time you actually didn’t ask for stuff? Here’s a prayer for you. Try it out someday, when you finally grow up.

Our Father in heaven, how are you today? Can I help you with something? I’m fine, thanks for caring! Not that I don’t have problems on my own. But I can solve them myself once in a while. So if you need a helping hand or somebody to talk to, I’m here for you! Just like you have been there for me when I needed you. Amen!

The prayer is released under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial license. Illustration borrowed from Albrecht Dürer.

Europe According to Luxembourg

europe-according-to-luxembourg

When the editors from the German magazine Der Spiegel asked me if I would agree to make a map according to Luxembourg, I had a lot of doubts because I didn’t know enough jokes about the tiny country, except the fact that once its territory resembled the shape of an angry amoeba. Those people really lucked out when Germany, Belgium and France clipped their borders. Now the country looks neat and tidy.

The Spiegel team had a Luxembourgian colleague who was kind enough to share many useful suggestions and after several days of additional research and googling for weird facts, I got it all on paper. I spared some truths though. Did you know Morrissey wrote a song about a “buck-toothed” girl form Luxembourg who spends her summer all alone in her house? Sexy, no? This is why all countries should have a sea shore!

Coke or Else!

moroccan-cokeHave you ever wondered how come a corporation selling sweetened tap water became the most powerful brand on the planet?

Think about it! Put politics and globalization aside. Discard every layer of extra subjectivity that your mind ever applied to a Coca Cola bottle and just focus on the question.

It has become a habit to ridicule the market value of companies like Facebook and use it as an example of the superficiality of our times. But it’s a good thing to remember that what Facebook offers is more than flavored sugary water.

As the marketing pitch goes, it’s all about choice. But what is choice exactly?

I remember how in the early 90’s Eastern Europe was overrun by all kinds of Western experts whose job was to teach us about the merits of market competition. Prior to that, driven by hard-line communist philosophy, people in the Eastern block treated the market as a place where you were supposed to quickly dump your products and run back to your factory to produce more of the same.

Prices of goods were stamped on the packages. If occasionally the unthinkable happened and the production costs of cookies increased, a new price was announced on national television, sharing airtime with news about the latest imperialist US provocation and the next Soviet ballistic rocket that was about to spread peace as far as the Andromeda galaxy.

In the beginning of the 90’s we exchanged all that for good old capitalism. We opted for freedom, competition, and choice. We wanted more than a single type of chewing gum, two types of cheese and three varieties of chocolate candy which tasted suspiciously similar to one another.

You would think that once we got presented with such choice there would be no turning back. But after all those years it became apparent that in many cases we simply switched from one type of restraints imposed to us from above, to another, which origin was much more mysterious.

Coke is among the most striking examples because it has such a profound stranglehold on the soft drink market. You would be lucky to find real alternatives, especially in cafes and restaurants. Very often what we consider alternatives are simply variations of the same old formula. No matter how we decide to spin the story, in our world “soft drink” is synonymous with Coke.

I know a lot of people who claim to have a very refined taste for soft drinks. I know Americans who marvel at the taste of “European” Coke because it’s made with “real sugar”. Some even say that those living close to the Mexican border frequently cross it to buy Coke for the very same reason.

It’s hard to believe that anyone has developed such a refined ability, especially if one takes into account that taste is the weakest of all human senses and there is so much evidence that people can’t normally distinguish Pepsi from Coke if those drinks are stripped of their branding. On a side note, a similar cultural conundrum occurs when common Americans try out different types of wine. In both cases, as far as the customer is concerned, the choices depend on acquired information that has little to do with the actual perceived qualities of the product.

When Douglas Ivester, former CEO of Coca Cola, once insisted that there was “no one out there who has control over consumer minds and dollars”, he probably knew there were some factual “nuances” to this statement but he was ultimately right. Just like every political rule is sanctioned by its subjects, no advertising campaign or marketing manipulation on this planet can succeed if it doesn’t enjoy the support of the paying customer.

Coke is omnipresent because we like it that way. Marketing gurus in the West always like to emphasize that you can find Coke in the most remote villages in Africa. It sounds like a fabricated fairy tale but I can actually remember buying Coke in such a place in Madagascar. The people in the hut “store” had almost nothing else on sale. Not even bottled water. And when you are so far from your own culture, it becomes more than a simple drink. This is when the advertising pill really hits the target. All those memories of home. Mum. Dad. The family. Let’s drink to that! Fssssssst.

The familiarity of a product is its strongest asset. Pair it with universal availability and you have total control over consumer choice (or the absence of it). The most shocking examples of limitations don’t come from totalitarian societies because in a dictatorship, choice is artificially regulated from above. In free societies where people are left to decide for themselves, limitations appear out of complacency.

The photo above was taken in 2011 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Bulgaria Moderna Font in a Fowler Museum Art Book

resplendent dress from southeastern europe 01

Designing a font is like raising a child. You know your job is truly done only after it leaves home and becomes independent. The Bulgaria Moderna font was one of those kids that mature faster than you expect them. It was barely few months old when I received the first request for use. Since then, it got 3 major updates and reached more than 28.000 downloads. And even though the fourth update got delayed several times since I started working on my book, the project is far from over.

One of the biggest incentives for me to continue developing the font is that it gets used in so many creative ways. I was even contacted by the architect of a historical Bulgarian town who wanted to use it on a commemorative plate. To see his letters chiseled in stone is the dream of any typographer, dead or alive.

Another dream, equally exhilarating, is to see your font used in a book. To become aware that someone you don’t know picked it among millions of others and decided to weave it into the typographic fabric of his project. As a writer who has designed his own book after countless tests, I know how much thought goes into such decisions.

Few months ago I was asked to license my Bulgaria Moderna font for use in a book project accompanying an exhibition by the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Titled Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe: A History in Layers, the book is a one way ticket to Ethnographic Wonderland. It explores 19th Century costumes from Southeastern Europe and every single chapter heading in the giant, lushly illustrated 276-page eye-candy is adorned in Bulgaria Moderna glyphs, up to the cover itself.

And as much as it tickles my creative ego, it’s also a deeply humbling experience because the depth of knowledge and the attention to detail in this book vastly outstrip my own. It’s not every day that I get a lesson in my own history from people across the ocean. This makes me happy.

You can find the book on Amazon.

resplendent dress from southeastern europe 02

resplendent dress from southeastern europe 03

Europe According to the British Tories

europe-according-to-uk-tories

Something really strange started to happen to the British Conservatives since they came to power. A significant part of them feels so frustrated with the European Union they are eager to take every opportunity to disrupt the ties Britain has with it, regardless of whether it makes sense. Their latest panic attack? The tsunami of potential immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania after the lifting of the work restrictions at the end of this year. Some conservatives seem so eager to play the scare card and collect any momentary dividends that they literary came up with something brilliantly retarded. You think the word is too strong? Well judge for yourself from this report in the Guardian:

Please don’t come to Britain – it rains and the jobs are scarce and low-paid. Ministers are considering launching a negative advertising campaign in Bulgaria and Romania to persuade potential immigrants to stay away from the UK…
The idea, however tentative, appears to clash with the billions of pounds Britain spent on the Olympics, partly to drive up the country’s reputation. It also emerged as the Home Office launched a guide to Britishness for foreigners who would be citizens which opens with the words: “Britain is a fantastic place to live: a modern thriving society”.

It really takes a lot of panic (or cynical opportunism) to assume that you need to trash your own country’s reputation to avoid immigration. The only meaningful explanation is that those who mastered the plan think such trashing will have a precise surgical effect, as if they are aware of a special communication channel which will restrict the message only to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals and also impede them from sharing it with anyone abroad.

I am happy to report that the plan backfired even before its implementation. Apart from the usual Twitter backlash, a Romanian advertising company took advantage of the stupid situation and created its own campaign, inviting Britons tired from the rain to come over and enjoy a better weather. One of the leading Bulgarian bloggers, Boyan Yurukov, took things even further and started an initiative urging anybody from the island to move permanently to Bulgaria.

Somewhere in the middle of this storm I’m throwing my own two cents, the map of Europe according to the Tories you see above, now officially part of my Mapping stereotypes project. Cheers and remember that the German edition of my Atlas of Prejudice book comes out this month. Unfortunately it’s too late to include the current map in it but maybe there will be enough pages in the coming English edition.

Who knows…