Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thinking Outside the Box While Living Inside the Box

I’m an artist. Ok, not a visual artist, but I am a writer. A full-time writer who was groomed for the commercial construction business and who, for a time, worked as a project manager for said construction business.

My dad, a commercial construction business owner, taught me to think “inside the box” as it were. Because after all, this was a business of straight lines that were supposed to come together and/or intersect at precise, planned points; a business of bottom-lines, efficient use of space and time, apples and apples, oranges and oranges.

I hated it.

Being very different from my dad, I insisted on thinking “outside the box,” simply because that was my nature. In a word, I have always been very uncomfortable with thinking inside the box, finding instead a sort of comfort in my attraction to all things, well, outside the box. In high school, I was the kid who befriended the outsiders who wore black, and styled their hair into spiky Mohawks. I dug punk rock and new wave instead of classic rock. I dreamed of living in Europe rather than the burbs, and I took to the construction business like a fish takes to a dry desert environment.

As a journalist, I butter my bread by doing a lot of architecture and construction writing. Recently it occurred to me that over the past century, architects have been fighting a similar battle: to either design inside the box or outside the box. After all, the box as a form in and of itself is one of the most efficient architectural design standards ever conceived of. Just take a stroll along mid-town Broadway or Madison Avenue in Manhattan and you will see so many examples of boxes your brain can’t possibly process them all. Wide boxes; thin boxes; tall boxes; short boxes; boxes stacked on top of one another; boxes made of shiny steel; boxes made of glass; boxes that form a kind of zig-zag; even boxes built inside other boxes. In major cities like New York, urban architecture is all about the box. But at the same time, it’s all about thinking outside the box about the box. If you catch my drift.

Yet according to journalist Karrie Jacobs, speaking on behalf of her design concept of “boxism,” while 21st century designers are doing their best to abandon the concept of the box for more striking pyramids, spirals, or even “swooping” architecture that reaches more for aesthetics than it does symmetry or efficiency, they are at the same time more in love with the box than ever before.

“We go to a restaurant where everything undulates, where fluid walls change colors according to mood, where every surface has its own custom-programmed texture. But what are we all doing in this amazing environment? We’re studying the little boxes in our hands: texting, checking our Facebook feeds, tweeting. We’re uploading pictures of our meals or transmitting our locations to Foursquare. The world around us is expressive beyond our wildest dreams, but we don’t much notice because we’re deep in our boxes. Our iPhones, our Kindles, our BlackBerries, our iPads: all of them are containers, slim but rectilinear, that synthesize and modulate complexity.”

I think it's safe to say we find comfort inside the box even if we have no choice as individuals but to express ourselves outside the box. The same can be said of the publishing business. For years I thought inside the box while living the life of the Bohemian writer-guy, outside the box. I became convinced, like the rest of the MFA-in-Writing candidates, that the only true measure of success in this business came in the form a major contract with a major publishing house (you know, a big square box inside Times Square).

That contract was awarded to me ten years ago by a Random House imprint along with a quarter of a million dollars. But it all felt very uncomfortable for me, because even though I was doing what was expected of a successful novelist, I felt very anxious about having to "pay back" all that advance money. The major question I kept asking myself was this: How many books do I have to sell in order to make up that huge advance? The answer was this: lots of them. Too many to even comprehend. In other words, I was never going to sell enough box-shaped hardcovers or paperbacks in order to keep myself securely inside the box. If I wanted to stay alive in this business, I was going to have to start thinking outside the box. I was going to have to embrace a new design model.

It didn't happen right away. But when indie publishing took off in concurrence with the E-Book revolution, that's when I realized that my outside the box publishing opportunity had arrived. Here was a system that didn't put up a lot of up-front money, if any. Yet because the dominant form of publication was digitally produced E-Books, my titles would become available to a global market 24/7. I would be paid responsibly, according to each unit sold. And, as it turns out, those units can really add up.

Over the past month, I've moved more than 60,000 copies of THE INNOCENT landing me on the Amazon Top 10 for Bestselling Kindle E-Books which, as a writer who should for business purposes think inside the box, is precisely where I want to be. For the first time in ages I was a happy camper. Here was a new publishing design model that allowed me to publish outside the norm, while allowing me the opportunity to make a living. A very good living as it turns out.

Perform a small scientific experiment today. See how many times you come into contact with a box, be it your laptop computer, your box of cereal, your cubicle at work (your box inside a box), your Kindle, IPad, or Nook. Try and calculate how many times a day you purposely escape into your little box. My guess is you can’t go a single hour without experiencing some kind of physical relationship with a box. That’s when you will begin to realize that no matter how much you attempt to think “outside the box,” you are doing so while steadfast grounded “inside the box.” And that's okay. The point is to strike a balance between conventional wisdom and new thinking.

If the big publishing houses want to keep up with the rent payments for their big urban boxes in New York City, it might be time for them to think outside the you-know-what. That will mean offering higher royalties for E-Books to authors, but at the same time, lowering their prices for readers. Clearly, an an almost impossibly outside the box concept for them. But it's not their fault. It cost a lot of "overhead" money to maintain a publishing house inside a big Manhattan box. But that doesn't mean the Big 6 Pubs are going away anytime soon. Nor should they. It's simply time for them to rethink their grand design, from the ground up. It's time for them to think outside the box while surviving inside the box.



  1. Vincent--mentioned you my blog today (Sunday). About how many ebooks sell and how it's possibly done.

  2. Fascinating perspective - yes, I agree that I think outside the box (in creative pursuits) while simultaneously dwelling within the box of technology.