Extribulum: A Q&A

Though good may come of practice, this primal truth endures:
The first time anything is done, it’s done by amateurs.
— Art Buck

What does “extribulum” mean?

Extribulum (pl. Extribuli) at its most etymologically simple is a Latin noun, probably incorrectly assembled — it has been several years since I studied Latin. Ex, out from; Tribulum, a machine. A threshing machine, which is more appropriate than one would think given some of its definitions.

“That which comes out from the machine.”

It is a reaction to the concept of incunabula, a term for printed material from the rise of the press, technically identified as “before 1501 in Europe”. An extribulum is, broadly, a document created and housed on a computer or server, the incunabula of the digital age.

Though I am certainly not the first person to write one, I do take credit for coining the term; since then it has had several definitions, which is much to the credit of the English language. An extribulum is, variously:

  • A book that exists solely online, created on a computer and never formally put to paper print;
  • A book that was published online for free review, to appear in digital and/or paper print form with changes and emendations based on review;
  • A book published, in any form, by an individual or company which subscribes to a non-traditional model of publishing based in the digital world.

These are merely its uses so far, and not the limits of its definition. Yeah, welcome to the internet.

How did the term come to exist?

“Fine,” Nicholas says. “If you need me I’ll be in Extribuli.”
“Exwhat?” Donna asks.
“Look it up!” Nicholas calls over his shoulder, wondering actually how many volumes the OED now runs to. Extribulum — ex, out from; tribulum, a machine. The opposite of the incunabula. Works that exist in electrical form, at the cusp of the rise of the e-published book.
The TARDIS House Rules

The term “extribulum” is entirely to blame on Doctor Who.

The above quote is the origin of the term, from a fanfic (or, if you prefer, transformative work) written in the Doctor Who universe. The setting is The Library, a canonical construct in the original media: an entire planet given over to collecting the printed knowledge of mankind.

Surely, I thought, its databanks must be huge; by the time of its existence in the 51st century, ebooks would be popular and early ebooks preserved as artifacts of the rise of the digital book. In order to separate the character of Nicholas from his companions, I set him on a quest to find the repository of extribuli that The Library must house.

So…who cares about this?

Well, I do.

If publishers were smart, they would care. The rise of ebook technology has meant tough times for the publishing industry. Digital books are becoming more and more popular, especially since the cost of distribution is very low.

Don’t misunderstand: creating an ebook is no less expensive than creating the template for a print book. There’s a reason ebooks cost so much. But there is an entire “front end” to publishing that is not only wasteful but expensive: publishing houses consider bookstores to be their primary customer, rather than readers. If books don’t sell well, they’re remaindered or sent back to the publisher, who takes a loss on those printed copies that failed to appeal to the public.

If authors care about their art, they will care. Authors don’t really make much money from book sales, a lot of the time. But beyond the front-end of publishing, authors are artists and artists don’t exist in a static world.

Extribulum publishing offers authors a chance to pre-screen their book, to get feedback from readers who have a vested interest in helping the author tell the best story they can tell. We are not sellers and buyers; we are writers and readers. If you want to tell a good story you have to know how your audience will react to your structure, characterization, plotting, grammar, and style. Offering a book for anyone to read and comment on is very, very difficult and very, very scary, but it creates a greater understanding of audiences and how to affect them.

If readers want good stories, they should care. It is a rare opportunity for a reader to interact directly with a writer, to tell them what works and what doesn’t, and to learn what the writer thinks and feels about their work. It allows readers to see and participate in the creative process, which creates a strong tie to the finished product.

By any definition of extribulum, we mean a work which has adapted itself to a new digital world. This takes advantage of the internet’s offerings: mass communication, fast communication, international and intercultural interaction, and access for free to artists, scholars, and audiences.

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