Black Holes in the Gutenberg Galaxy

A talk (on behalf of the Greyscale Press publishing project) given at the Off The Press conference, May 22-23 2014, organized by the Institute of Network Cultures, Rotterdam.


[beeping sounds]

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Manuel: Thanks for the introduction. Did I really write that?

Silvio Lorusso: You did.

Manuel: OK. I am super happy to be here in WORM, finally in real. I have been here a few times, but virtually through video projections and through the interwebs. Now, it’s great to be here live. It’s a great space.

What I am talking about here, actually this title — Black Holes in the Gutenberg Galaxy — I decided to change it. I came across a new concept by reading the little glossary that Silvio has put together on some piratepad somewhere. Actually, we should share it with the audience, maybe.

Silvio: Oh, yeah!

Manuel: We will talk about it later. This is a concept that I read about in this wonderful glossary (around publishing, post-digital stuff and so on). So, the Flip-Flop. Who knows what the Flip-Flop is? Who wrote that definition, in your glossary?

Silvio: Robin Sloan.



Silvio: Yeah, that’s the original definition.

Manuel: This is the answer: “It’s the process of having…”

Flip-flop, from the physical to the digital, and then back into the physical. The more it goes against the stream, the more interesting it becomes. This is what has been happening with Greyscale Press.

Greyscale Press started randomly as a side project with zero funding, no big ambitions — just the interest of actually reading some texts that accumulated in some corner of my hard drive. I wanted to have them on paper so I could sit down quietly, at some moment, and read them while traveling or while having a bad Internet connection.

It started with a dummy text, or I thought it would be a dummy text.

I guess every one of you, when navigating the Internet, sometimes you come across some long, interesting-looking article or text that you save, somewhere on your hard drive in a corner. And then you find it two years later, and you don’t remember what it was. In this case, I came across that on that blog, a typical whatever thing, which was written in October-December 2004, never updated since, totally abandoned.


It was actually a very, very long page, narrating a story, a literary work. It sounded very mysterious, pretty fascinating, I downloaded it and forgot it. Then, when I published my first print-on-demand book, I used this as a test pattern, as a Lorem Ipsum.

I read it for the first time when I was proofing it, and then I figured out that it was actually a masterpiece of 21st century post-modern literature. I think really it is, even if it’s maybe not in standard English, hard to publish through a traditional book publisher. It’s really worthwhile to read it, and so I have been spreading it since then.

This was the beginning of Greyscale Press. I came up with that name because I had to put something on the cover of the book to make it look serious. Like those decisions that you take in just half a second, it sticks and it can become really a good thing.

Now, there have been other things added to this collection. It has been expanding, and it has always been working on the principle that there is that digital file that is too long to be watching the screen for hours. So I print it, and I will read it at some point, actually I will also distribute that book to other people.


Some of those additions are kind of undercover, without having the rights of using them. For instance, this great text by Neal Stephenson [on the screen: Mother Earth Mother Board] of which I made a printed edition, illustrated with images which weren’t in the original.

He’s writing… You know the article? It was published in WIRED magazine in the 90s. It has been superseded since, but he was mapping the early Internet undersea cables. It’s a really great story, and he always puts in the text the GPS coordinates. So I made an illustrated version with maps that show the locations.


This was maybe one of the first “not found, but actually created” pieces: Data Hammer by Kim Xupei. This was a made-up personality and a made-up book. The concept was to write a fictional biography of a Chinese hacker, by basing the content on all that press that you have since 10 years, about the cyber threat coming from China. The Chinese hackers attacking Google, attacking American military systems, and so on.

The concept here was to aggregate those news stories, and to find some ghost writers to write a kind of novel from that, and to assemble it into a plausible biography. It’s kind of a work in progress. You can order the book if you want, but its not a really coherent story yet. If there are people interested in the topic, talk with me and it may go forward.


This was another undercover thing [on screen: In conversation with Julian Assange]. I came across that magnificent interview done by Hans-Ulrich Obrist with Assange, whith contributions by Ai Wei Wei and many other artists. And I really wanted to have it in print and to show it to many other people, to have many other people read it. So I made an edition, I added some other texts, by Geert Lovink who is maybe in this room, and Jaron Lanier who refused that I would publish it, and so it stayed a kind of undercover thing.


This is a more recent one in that series about cypher punk activism. Those are talks, speeches by Jacob Applebaum who is one of the persons who are really in the know of what the NSA has been doing, and who has been covering the Snowden case for the german SPIEGEL.

He has been giving lots of talks, and also a testimony in front of the European Parliament. You can watch those videos on YouTube and on many places They are really full of information, it’s an extremely dense topic. So I needed to have that on paper, black on white, to be able to take my yellow marker and to analyze and process it.

I had those talks transcribed by online services and then, with Jacobs’s authorization, I published it as a print-on-demand book that you can order cheaply, for your education, or also as a propaganda piece to spread and support the cause.

It’s typeset it in a very traditional way, since it’s not an art project. Here, it was really about curiosity, about the content, the hard facts. The point was to have it as readable as possible. It’s a raw transcript so it’s sometimes a bit rough around the edges, so the layout had to be as clean as possible.

Doing those books, I became interested in the technical process, and also in all the issues of proprietary file formats, expensive software that makes collaboration difficult.

For instance, this book by Jacob Applebaum has been shared on Github, in the intention that other people can improve and contribute to it. Many of his recent talks have been co-transcribed by lots of people through Etherpads, and put online just a few minutes or hours after the talk. There is an opportunity for collaboration. Therefore, it is important that the files are accessible, the file format is open.

I have been working here for instance with Scribus, an open-source typesetting, graphic design software which uses an XML file format, which could potentially be used for all types of processes, transforming into Epubs and whatnot. Some people are working on that!

Once you get into that process, you start also becoming obsessed by typefaces and fonts. This [on screen: L’Eve future] was probably the most successfully selling book that was published by Greyscale Press, and it’s called “L’Eve future – spécimens de fontes libres”.


It’s a book of type specimens. It was done in book-sprint mode, like a one week workshop with 10 or 12 graphic design 1st grade students who worked on that intensively. They gathered a selection of high quality open-source free and libre fonts, that were assembled in a type specimen book.

They used the novel “L’Eve future”, which is a very early science fiction novel from the 19th century, and they were crazy enough to have the plan to make it run through the whole book. So it’s not one text sample that just repeats, but it’s a full novel that you can read from page 1 to page 500. It was a crazy challenge, and they did it. It’s selling through distribution channels like Amazon quite well. It’s really a useful tool.

Now, I’m not a big fan of presenting work. If you want to see the books, come tomorrow to the Bazaar. When is it? In the afternoon? Here?

Silvio: It’s here.

Manuel: So, that will be the opportunity of seeing real stuff.


Now, I want to add a little bit to that great and fascinating topic: the study of “book spam”, or “spam books”. You have seen some brilliant examples by Traumawien. When did you do that Epub/Amazon/YouTube compilation? Do you remember the year when it was?

Male Audience Member: 2012.

Manuel: 2012, OK. The whole story has started when print-on-demand books were really taking off. I think the earliest traces were in 2009, 2010 around that date. First examples of algorithmic, automatically produced spam started to appear on Amazon.


Now, it depends how you define spam. This can be useful for some people probably, and those books have been produced by one person who came up with engineering methods for producing reports by gathering data from the web and putting them together.


Manuel: It’s also kind of poetry, I think. Also there is an algorithm who generates random prices, as you can see. The name of the publisher is Icon Group International.

The last time when there was a query about that, I found that he has produced quite a number of books. He has been patient, and Amazon hasn’t been kicking him out, unlike you. So, they consider this to be “good enough” content.

This is how I personally came across that phenomenon: I was looking for documentation about the great conceptual art group The KLF / K Foundation. I saw that book and I was very surprised by the cover, because they are famous for having burnt one million british pounds in the 90s. Here, the banknote which is on the cover is not a pound note, but a dollar bill.

There is something very wrong… and actually upon further inspection, this book is a compilation and aggregation of Wikipedia articles by a publisher named Alphascript Publishing. I thought that was a really great sounding name, so I researched further. I saw that I had at that time a small number of 17,000 books…


Manuel: …Which covered a very wide range of topics. After some time, this caught the attention of the Wikipedia community and big debates and emotions arose, wars erupted. This is a brilliant example, “History of Georgia (Country)”. You can guess what the photograph is. It’s Atlanta, so not in the country of Georgia.



Manuel: Those books have been spreading through all those online distribution channels – Barnes and Noble. This is a Wikipedia article that I co-wrote, about some video software. And sometimes on the way, passing from one platform to the other, they lose some metadata. Here, the cover has been lost and it becomes harder and harder to identify, if it’s a serious work of research or documentation, or not.

On Wikipedia, some people have been really passionate about that, have done tons of research. They made a table of old alternate publisher names that Alphascript Group has been publishing under.

In order not to be kicked out by Amazon like you, they generated imprint names and they generated editor names.

Male Audience Member: Can I add something?

Manuel: Yes.

Male Audience Member: I wasn’t blocked because of the content, but of the multiple accounts.

Manuel: Because of the multiple accounts? From one IP?

Male Audience Member: Yeah, 50 accounts.

Manuel: OK! So, this has been running for some time. I think now the spam books are appearing less and less and in the search results, but at some moment, it was really massive. And if you were querying for a really obscure topic, you would certainly find some of those spam books in your results.

You see here, they had 350,000 for Betascript Publishing, 180,000 for Alphascript. It was really a serious business. They chose really beautiful author names which the middle initial, which is proven to increase the seriousness and the credibility.


Manuel: There have been studies about that. The proof that this works is that if you… Sorry what is your question?

Male Audience Member: Did anybody purchase them ?

Manuel: There are reviews on Amazon. Some people complained that the quality wasn’t what they expected.


Manuel: There were some reviews also by a German guy who is probably running the business. He made some reviews by hand, but he didn’t manage to write reviews as quickly as the books were published. So, strangely, it seems to be harder to automate the reviews than publishing actual titles.

Proof that this spam actually does work on a certain scale is that, if you go into any university nowadays, and search for Alphascript Publishing, there are big chances that you will find some titles in the university book shelves. This was where I live in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. So they had some books on really precise topics.

“The Judicial System of the People’s Republic of China” for instance. I borrowed a few of those books — just here to say that the person who acquired titles didn’t pass the spam detection test — like the Turing test, which is detecting if somebody in front of you is human. Now, when you purchase books, you have to perform also a sort of book Turing test — has it been made by a human or not? — when you purchase them online.

Those are two titles that I got from the library, just to be sure that they really exist, and they do. They aren’t that different optically from traditional academic publishing. And here I placed them in front of the tombstone of Jorge Luis Borges, the author and the inventor of the Library of Babel, just to make that little connection.


A side note about “spam as books”: writers nowadays can also be SEO aware. You know, Search Engine Optimization. That’s also a way to attract an audience for your titles, like giving them a title that is relatively close to an existing best seller. This isn’t a big movement on Amazon, so it’s not as massive as the Wikipedia generated spam.



Manuel: But it happened, there are some examples. This is actually more an art prank, because inside, they are effectively 50,000 times the words “shades of grey”, so it can be considered an art project. That’s why it got positive reviews as you can see.


Manuel: Or that one. “I am The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”.


Manuel: That’s the end, actually, of the interesting part of the presentation.


Manuel: Was it 15 minutes?

Silvio: It’s fine. It’s fine. If you have something to say you can continue.

Manuel: OK. I wasn’t totally sure how this evening part would go. So I had some little thoughts regarding the general topic of that conference, like the tools, the Digital Publishing Tool Kit thing, that I was expecting to see a bite more what it would be. I’m curious when it will be released.

My position as a producer of books between the Web and between the print, taken in that format war that we live in, is that it’s an exciting time. We have lots of unfinished tools around us, lots of tools being developed. It’s a really interesting phase to be working in. Of course, there are things that are really needed and that everybody wants. Nobody’s still got it really right. Maybe they won’t ever be totally right.

Here are my rough notes of things I would love to see in that ecosystem of producing book-like content for print and web.


I would love to see a Silkroad — like the illegal Tor based anonymous marketplace — where e-books get exchanged and actual books as well.


A mesh network of booksellers. It would be super interesting to talk about this with Alessandro Ludovico. We talked a bit during the break. He has the same idea in a more precise way. Having booksellers organizing themselves by a powerful software buying system that would be targeted, not to have another giant silo, but to put in contact small local book-selling places.


The Digital Touch Publishing Tool Kit. Everybody wants it. Everybody has a precise idea of how it should be.

Like: it should be command line based, so that you can automate everything. You don’t want to be blocked by the user interface, especially if you want to produce 300,000 books in one step.

If there is a user interface, make it be a Web user interface. It’s more flexible. It will work on every platform. Be it a tablet or be it a Linux operating system. And you will have lots of coders who know the language to make it work.

Version-control everything, of course. We are really used to it right now in the field of programming. We also want it in the field of book production.

Allow us to work in offline mode. For programming, it may be OK to be all the time online. For writing, or proofing a text, or that kind of activity, it tends to work better, at least for me, when there is no Internet.

The Distributed Version Control Systems allow us to have the copy always with us. So, it has to be possible to write offline. If the whole system has to be web-based, and needs a permanent Internet connection, it doesn’t work for me.

That’s the main points. Thank you.