'Ecotopia': The Story of the Little Book That Could

Ernest "Chick" Callenbach's 1977 novel reminds us how the medium of print shaped the publications and culture of an era.

Today, Ernest "Chick" Callenbach's Ecotopia is an established part of publishing's lore of rejected best-sellers. As the Washington Post's wrote in its obituary for Callenbach who passed away earlier this month (from the LA Times):

Mr. Callenbach was the first to admit that literary style was not the chief merit of the book, which he once described as "half-novel, half-tract." The manuscript was rejected by 25 publishers, who, according to the author, believed that ecology was a passing fad.

With money raised from friends, he formed Banyan Tree Books and sold out the first couple of printings. After Bantam picked up "Ecotopia" in 1977, Mr. Callenbach called his novel "the little book that could," his wife said.

I'm not sure whether Callenbach ever expressed an opinion on the sustainability of ebooks and on-demand publishing. There is an obvious savings of paper, warehousing, and transportation costs, but also a harder to calculate environmental price of producing, powering, and discarding rapidly obsolescent portable devices and their batteries, with many toxic parts. Also, as Nicholson Baker has reminded us in Double Fold, even cheap acidic paper can have surprisingly long life, as anyone seeing copies of 1920s and 1930s (and older) books in rummage sales can confirm. As Callenbach discovered:

Proof that "Ecotopia" had a cult following came soon after it was published when he discovered that a kind of "Ecotopian lending library" had sprung up. In 1977, Mr. Callenbach said he came across one copy that had been inscribed by 20 borrowers in places such as Portland, Ore.; Missoula, Mont.; and Alberta, Canada, before it was returned to the original owner.

"That wrecks my royalties," Mr. Callenbach observed, "but it does save trees."

But did that form of frugality really hurt Callenbach's income? Like public-library circulation, it can be a way to build word of mouth and ultimately greater sales. And the remaining major book-review outlets might join in the ebook hype, but in practice review very few titles issued only electronically or on demand.

As I've said before, the risk of printing an edition of books, whether for a commercial or non-profit press, or for a self-publishing writer, isn't just a bug but a feature. Callenbach's willingness to set up his own company showed a certain commitment. And for enthusiasts there's a potential bonus that ebooks can never match: The only first printing of the original Banyan Tree Books edition of Ecotopia listed on the invaluable bookselling aggregator site Addall.com is now selling for $750.00.There is no guarantee that today's ebooks will even be readable on electronic hardware and operating systems 35 years hence.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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