Self-help books

Publishing yourself through the slush pile of Joe Shmuck and friends
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ISBN REAL In a recent, much-discussed Washington Post op-ed, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp said, "There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, [major] publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively."

The "widely" Karp refers to is an advantage that major publishers lost a long time ago. A physical copy of the latest Robert Ludlum novel is far less accessible to the global community than Joe Shmuck's online prose poem about his first drug experience. It's the "effectively" that's taking its sweet-ass time to materialize. After all, thanks to the ease of e-distribution, the Internet has already become a cosmic slush pile.

Karp foresees a time when the glut of options for disposable entertainment will make brand-establishment for "formula fiction" a less successful strategy, leaving attention to quality as the only way for a major publisher to stay relevant. On the contrary, it seems to me that the agoraphobic variety offered by the Internet would make brand-establishment quite successful for a major publisher. Maybe it's defeatist thinking, but I wonder if the only truly exciting possibility for seekers of uncompromising work in the near future is that smaller enterprises might have a better chance to survive alongside the larger ones. Maybe the practical hope is that the eventual normalization of "digital distribution and print-on-demand technology" might be sufficient to sustain the talented independent writer of modest financial expectations.

One potential beneficiary of this modest revolution is novelist Carl Shuker, who is publishing his brainy horror experiment Three Novellas for a Novel all by his lonesome at www.threenovellasforanovel.com. This month, Shuker — a New Zealander now living in London — has made the second of the three titular installments, ?O Hills Park, available for download. Also available is the first novella, The Depleted Forest, about an editor in an alternate-present Japan who is proofreading the computer-translated memoir of a member of a secret society of rape-tourists. The third installment, Beau Mot Plage, will be uploaded soon. For the PDFs, he's charging — à la Radiohead — whatever you want to pay.

Since Shuker has already published two well-regarded novels (2005's award-winning The Method Actors and 2006's The Lazy Boys), he's not exactly at the bottom of the slush pile. But he's not Radiohead, either. More to the point, while The Depleted Forest is a relatively accessible and not unmarketable story, ?O Hills Park is the kind of thing only an Internet could love. It's the full memoir excerpted in the first novella and presented in the quasi-English of computer translation. Rushed to publication to catch the public's fleeting interest in the first book's sex scandal, the text of ?O Hills Park is as much a mesmerizing word puzzle as an intriguing piece of fiction. It's also a supremely ironic comment on the publishing culture from which the work was spared — the culture whose cathartic rehabilitation Karp is so optimistic about.

It's doubtful either Karp or Shuker is making that culture hang its head in shame. Back when writers with a taste for food and shelter were at the mercy of those with the exclusive means of wide distribution, they had no choice but to pretend publishers answerable to stockholders had an obligation to publish works with all the mass appeal of a conscript military.

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