RetroSuburbia Online: Innovation in Digital Publishing

RetroSuburbia Online
Permaculture: Innovation in Digital Publishing
The behind the scenes thinking

Our launch of RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a “pay what you feel” online flip-book in response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis has galvanised enthusiasm in permaculture and kindred circles. However, it has also raised some questions, and even frustration, with our strategy.

We had always intended to release RetroSuburbia as a downloadable e-book, but we needed to do so in a way that didn’t destroy the market for the 592 page hardcopy, printed in Australia and retailing at $85. We were looking to price the digital version at $50, whilst allowing those who already own the content in the form of the hardcopy book to access it for around $10.

Kindle, ePub and other standard e-book formats allow text-only books to be converted and formatted at low cost, however for a long, graphics-rich book like RetroSuburbia, they become prohibitively complex and expensive to create.

So our default was to go back to a PDF format, a solid, universally readable format that has been around for decades. This was our choice in the early 2000s for our first effort at digital publishing: converting and updating our 1995 A3-landscape book Melliodora. This was a labour of love and innovation by permaculture graphic designer colleague Richard Telford. It came out on CD ROM in 2005, and included a then innovative HTML “virtual tour” of the property using early digital photos from 2003.

When e-books finally went mainstream, we were amazed that the formats used couldn’t take advantage of the graphics-rich, fine grained, full colour and multimedia potential of an interactive PDF. On the plus side, they were simple to use and had some of the qualities people were used to in reading a book.

In the lead up to the GFC, my colleague Adam Grubb offered to use his substantial web skills to put my Future Scenarios work online as a long-read website (futurescenarios.org). We both felt the urgent imperative to help inform social and environmental activists of the challenging future unfolding, driven by climate change and peak oil. This free access website launched my role as a “futurist” and led to an offer from our US book distributor to publish Future Scenarios as a book, which proved to be a modest success despite the contents being free online.

A decade later, printing our massive manual RetroSuburbia in Australia, costing $25,000 more than it would to print in China, felt like a case of ideological extremism but one that was well supported by crowdfunding. We have sold more than 10,000 copies, mostly in Australia, making it a bestseller by any standard, despite not receiving a single book review from any mainstream journalist. When the mainstream media eventually discover RetroSuburbia they will no doubt describe it as having a cult following. Of course, the “cult” in “permaculture” is a running joke and issue of serious discussion within the movement – but I digress!

With RetroSuburbia out there fermenting change across our residential heartlands and hinterlands, I felt content to wait for the storm which I thought would come through the bursting of the property bubble, in between intensifying climate change disasters. As it started to unfold with that other horseman of the apocalypse, Pestilence, we scrambled to launch RetroSuburbia for the mainstream stuck at home with digital access and time to read.

We decided that using a new online format that shows off the best of our beautiful book, and gives readers some of the qualities of book reading, would provide the best of both of our previous innovations in digital publishing. Being online would give us the option to modify and add links to the gathering trove of material at retrosuburbia.com and further afield. It would also allow us to understand how people were using the book. Further, it would reduce the chance of the PDF being just one more unopened attachment circulating the web and ending up a torrent download.

The speed with which made the digital book available created some premature and mixed message publicity giving the impression this would be a PDF download, whereas what we produced is an online book that can be read on a standard web browser with the look and feel of the original book (most suited to desktop computers).

The “pay what you feel” gateway invites everyone to consider, from the heart, the value and import of this material for them. This reflects the Permaculture Ethics – in particular the third one, “Fair Share”: people are asked to judge what they feel is a fair share is based on their own circumstances. We trust this faith in the sharing economy will allow us to survive and thrive. We are happy for those of very limited means to use the online book without paying fiat currency, but we don’t want to see it pointlessly passed around to those who would not value or digest its potentially life-changing words, photos and graphics. We also encourage other ways to contribute, especially for those who cannot afford to pay much: share retrosuburban ideas as widely as possible, join the online community to share your experiences, and perhaps submit a case study.

Not being available offline is a significant disadvantage for some, and a hazard in some future scenarios. Enduring online access depends on our ability to continue to pay the substantial costs of maintaining today’s complex websites (and for the world wide web to survive in usable form). However, any lasting digital form of the book, whether online or downloadable, relies on technology in a way that a printed copy of the book doesn’t. If you are worried about the future availability and reliability of technology, a paper copy of the book is a good investment.

The response to the launch party has been huge, maybe big enough on social media to see RetroSuburbia scale-up for the masses, and we are grateful and moved by this remarkable show of support. Our team is incredibly energised but the effort and complexity has been enormous with some fallout, including the struggle to service customer queries and problems. We trust our network community to give us useful and honest feedback so that our third innovation in online publishing can help change the world for the better.

We are all drawing breath and attempting to look after our health as we work to make the delivery of RetroSuburbia online smooth, robust and resilient in a fast-changing world. And if the proverbial shit really hits the fan, we might just dump a PDF of RetroSuburbia out there to circulate – if necessary on memory sticks attached to carrier pigeons. It makes you realise that despite the wonders of the digital world, there is nothing like a book in your hands, just like “a bird in the hand being worth more than two in the bush”.

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One Response to RetroSuburbia Online: Innovation in Digital Publishing

  1. Gav Hardy April 22, 2020 at 9:35 am #

    David and team,

    You guys are incredible and are doing amazing work.

    This apparent issue around the nuances and subtleties of the correct way of making an online edition is just another ‘first world problem’, coming from the most affluent culture that has ever existed in the history of the world. For Dog’s sake you’re giving folks the option of getting RetroSuburbia for no cost. If people don’t like it they have the option of buying the hard copy.

    I don’t think you have to justify anything regarding the online edition.

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