Steam swooshed onto the platform as the metallic black-horse eased to a stop in Detroit.
The clunky train rocked The Grand Trunk Western Railway passengers in their seats. Cargo slid in the holding bays.
A twelve year old boy steadied himself against precious equipment, secured in the baggage department. Coins jingled in his near-full pockets. The odor of hot ink and ironed paper mixed with burnt coal.
And the train wasn’t the only thing rocking. The innovative boy smiled while he tallied sales of The Grand Trunk Herald. Demand for his real-time newspaper was on the rise.
Thomas Edison birthed a fresh era of news publishing in 1862. He sold the voice of his original publication by the copy, or for a mere eight cents per month, by subscription.
In the volcanic and news-hungry climate of Civil War America, Edison hit on a popular niche. For the first time ever, passengers could devour the contents of a paper written on a moving train. A pre-pubescent Thomas couldn’t know he would soon change the culture of a publishing world.
Recently, I visited Thomas Edison’s Winter Home in Fort Myers, Florida. It was there I learned the factual details of my embellished account above. But it made me think about the culture of American publishing during that time of war, financial upheaval, and emotional decision-making. Not so different from today.
So it makes me wonder, if we were to rewind time, how would people in Edison’s time react to things we take for granted today? Could the folks living in that era have imagined CNN, the Internet, texting, social media, online videos, and other forms of immediacy news?
But I also reflect on those businesses who felt threatened by the young, creative upstart. They probably didn’t appreciate what they viewed as infringement on their market. Did they make changes in their own processes, as a result of the Edison transformation?
And how does all of this affect us as professionals, and the aspiring, in a writing world today?
What does the future hold for those of us impassioned to share a message through words? I believe young Edison provides a stellar example of how to face adversity. Thomas didn’t bemoan the times.
He exemplified a brilliant mind who took action where others surely complained. He paid attention when people expressed frustration. He heard those who wished to know what was going on in the war and in other parts of the country.
He turned ordinary news into newsprint customers couldn’t wait to buy.
Thomas Edison refused to let a depressive environment get him down. In today’s volatile publishing market, it’s a lesson we can learn.
No one knows exactly what tomorrow’s finished books will look like. Print on demand is making waves. But Edison’s style reminds us to keep our ears, minds, and eyes open. After all, what we do today may impact people one hundred years in the future.
Like passengers in Edison’s era, we may be readers, writers, editors, or publishers. But we all ride toward the same end. The enjoyment of great books. We can bemoan rocking motions, temporary stops, and a change in the news, but we can’t prevent innovation.
We have a single choice if our destination is writing for publication–climb on, and try to enjoy the ride.
Can you hear the whistle? The train is preparing to leave the station. All aboard!
What innovative ways might our books reach readers’ hands in the future? Those of us who author, how can we help publishers invent new ways to sell our books?