January 24, 2013

EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY: All Melville House books to be published exclusively in peptide chains


The future of publishing is here!

Researchers with the European Bioinformatics Institute announced this week on the website of Nature magazine that they’ve successfully pioneered a new method of encoding data on DNA molecules. Among the first pieces of information they encoded were the sonnets of William Shakespeare, as well as …

… a 26-second audio clip from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, a copy of James Watson and Francis Crick’s classic paper on the structure of DNA, a photo of the researchers’ institute and a file that describes how the data were converted.

Immediately following the announcement by Nick Goldman of the EBI team, our own publisher and founder Dennis Johnson convened a press conference to announce that starting this spring, Melville House will be using this new publishing platform to the exclusion of all others.

“We’re known for being an adventurous forward-thinking press,” said Johnson. “We’ve pioneered methods to pair books and ebooks, we’ve really nailed rushing topical ebooks to market, and now it’s time to branch out. For years people have been talking about a silver bullet, about the next big thing. Well, my friends, it’s time to stop talking and start ACT-ing. Get it? ACTing? Like Adenine, Cytosine and Thymine? Right? You know, because in DNA there’s … ah forget it.”

While information has been encoded in DNA strands before this point — most notably last year when geneticist George Church encoded the entirety of his book into DNA, and more recently with poet Christian Bök‘s attempts at a living mutating poem in the genome of a bacterium — the new encoding profile developed by the Goldman team has given them enough redundancy and reliability of data retrieval to make this a significant new step.

Goldman cited some of the benefits of the new method:

This information should last for millennia under cold, dry and dark conditions, says Goldman, as is evident from the recovery of readable DNA from long-extinct animals. “The experiment was done 60,000 years ago when a mammoth died and lay there in the ice,” he says. “And those weren’t even carefully prepared samples.”

And whereas current media such as cassette tapes or compact discs become obsolete as soon as their respective players are replaced by new technology, scientists will always want to read and study DNA, Goldman says. Sequencers might change, but you can “stick the DNA in a cave in Norway for a thousand years and we’ll still be able to read it”. This creates enormous savings for archivists, who will not have to keep buying new equipment to rewrite their archives in the latest formats.

“Really? Norway?” Johnson was quoted as saying. “Okay, sure. We can look into that. We’ve always prided ourselves on publishing books that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s nice to know that someone will be reading novels by Iranian dissidents, for instance, long after Iran itself ceases to exist. Or, I guess, this book about how to sharpen pencils. That’ll be extremely useful in a thousand years. Did he say a cave?”

The price of the process remains high, however.

The EBI team estimates that it costs around $12,400 to encode every megabyte of data, and $220 to read it back. However, these costs are falling exponentially. The technique could soon be feasible for archives that need to be maintained long term, but that will rarely be accessed, such as CERN’s data. If costs fall by 100-fold in ten years, the technique could be cost-effective if you want to store data for at least 50 years.

“Wait how much?” Johnson is quoted as saying. “I don’t know if … guys that’s kind of a lot of money. Well okay, that’s a small price to pay for being at the cutting edge of the publishing industry. Not, you know, SMALL small. We’re an indie publisher, after all. Have we done the math on this one? Guys? Fine. Fine. Okay. In 50-1000 years, when we unseal the cave and the checks start rolling in, the world will see that we were right.”

In other book news today, Amazon has announced that they’ll be selling proprietary-format RNA encoded books for $.99 starting next week.




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.