If You Can’t Make It New, Make It Special

This week, I remembered the TV paper. Every two weeks, we got a catalog in the mail that outlined exactly what show or movie would run on which channel at what time. Can you imagine? Scheduled programming, printed on paper. In times of “watch whatever you want, whenever you want,” it feels like a relic that may as well be buried with dinosaur bones — but in fact, our specific magazine, TV Spielfilm, still exists. Its print circulation is down 80% since 1998.

The German retail group Otto built a billion-dollar empire on mail order catalogs. In 2018, it sent out the last one. Now, everything happens online.

When I ordered some mangas last year from a small shop specializing in comics, they, too, sent a catalog. Hundreds of thin pages describing their inventory. But why? I can go to their website any time, search what I want, and see if they have it in stock.

There is, however, one catalog I receive worth remembering. After buying an old, first edition book from them a few years ago, every year, Sumner & Stillman, an antique bookshop in Maine, sends me their Literary First Editions catalog. It’s a simple but beautiful booklet with personally taken photographs and individual descriptions of every book they have for sale at the time. I always flick through it.

Time often washes away the status quo faster than we can blink. As an artist, business owner, or service provide, it can be exhausting to keep up. If you started a Youtube channel in 2006, you had one outlet to post your videos on. Now, you have at least half a dozen. Different formats. Different algorithms. Different audiences. No one can go hard on every platform — but you can make your channel special. Stick to Youtube. Stick to long-form. Post videos in a contemporary style, sure, but sprinkle in a few gems that celebrate the olden days. Van Neistat’s channel takes me back with every video, and it’s a wonderful place to visit.

Otto decided to build a good online shopping experience instead of doubling down on a dying medium. For a company with tens of thousands of employees, all aimed in one direction, that’s a special move to pull off. TV Spielfilm and the manga shop, meanwhile, are doing the new while maintaining the old in the same format. For whom and how long? Nobody knows. But only Sumner & Stillman took an action that beats both the pivot and the split: They reinvented the catalog. They made it smaller, not bigger. More thoughtful, less flimsy. They turned the status quo into the status novus. By making something special, they actually made it new.

You must go with the times, but you don’t have to follow every trend. If your resources are limited, don’t try to make everything new all the time. Just make it special. Special is more than enough — and often just as good — or even better than — new.