World Wide Word

Web publishing continues to transform frustrated writers into e-authors.

THERE'S NO SHORTAGE of alienated-outsider writers on the shelves, offering their estranged observations of conventional society. But hey, at least they're in print. The ultimate outsider is the writer who's never made it that far, who can't seem to crack the clubby publishing world. For a while it looked like the Web was going to change all that. The Web is limitless, democratic. Anyone can launch his or her words into cyberspace for everyone to enjoy. But like so many e-dreams, this one has become a little tarnished recently. Obscure 'zines still flourish online, but most Web showcases for the written word are struggling, especially those (like OpenLetters.net, which shut down earlier this year, and Salon) that aim to actually pay their contributors. Computerized formats for longer-form writing, such as e-books and CD-ROMs, haven't taken off either, except as vehicles for encyclopedias and software manuals. Nonetheless, a few ambitious writers on the fringes of the publishing world still keep the faith—and probably with good reason. The Internet is making self-publishing easier, cheaper, and more promising. The Net may yet serve to completely upend the traditional publishing power structure of editor-agent gatekeeper and hapless, excluded first-time novelist. One big traditional publishing house, Time Warner, is even embracing the new Net order with a Web-based talent search that just launched this spring. CAPITOL HILL RESIDENT Paul Brewster is trying to make the New Economy work for him. A sometime writer and actor—and part-time waiter at Fandango—he's also now a published author. His crime novel Moral Injustice is listed as "In Stock/Available" at Amazon.com, even though there are no actual copies in any Amazon warehouse. Brewster paid a company called GreatUNpublished.com $99 to make his book available as a "print-on-demand" (or POD) title. Thanks to digital storage and new printing technology, books like Brewster's can be printed in paperback form, one at a time, as they're ordered. That's a huge change from the old days of "vanity publishing," when writers who wished to see themselves in print had to order a minimum run of hundreds of copies. Moral Injustice "represents a little over a year of my life," says Brewster, whose play Aqua was performed at the Seattle Fringe Festival in March. "I just didn't want this to be another manuscript that was collecting dust on a shelf. Plus it was a nice memento for my family, after all these years of me writing." Brewster concedes that he actually loses money on every copy sold through Amazon. That's because Amazon only pays him $6.30 of the $15 cover price, and he has to pay GreatUNpublished.com $10 for each copy printed. But, he says, "It's an affordable sacrifice. Now when I go search for an agent I'll be able to say, 'See, these Web sites are carrying my book.' Maybe it will move my letter ahead of someone who has this manuscript and hasn't done anything with it. Who knows what could happen from here on out?" Bonita Thompson also has big dreams for her POD title, Crescent Heights, a mystery-romance just published by Xlibiris. "My ultimate goal is to sell the rights [to a movie studio] or at least get an option," she says. She points out that under the self-publishing system, she keeps all rights to her work and is free to sell it to a conventional publisher if there's interest. Thompson, who lives on First Hill and works mostly as a temp, says she has contacted 200 book clubs that she found on the Web. "I've heard back from five who have definitely chosen [Crescent Heights]." She points out that the major publishing houses usually don't do much promotion for first novelists anyway: "Even if I were published by HarperCollins, I would have to do the same thing." Downtown Seattle resident Leslie Ann Garrison, whose mystery series Visions of Murder: The Tall Tales Anthology will be available as a paperback at the end of this month, says, "Everywhere I go, I tell people about [the book]. I hand out my card to clerks at the Bon. I know all the PR people at the local bookstores. You have a good chance of success if you're really energetic and do a lot of promoting." Garrison was a sheriff's deputy in Yakima in the early '90s when, she says, "someone suggested I write up my experiences. I sat down and thought, 'I wonder if I could.'" Before she knew it, "I used up all my vacation and sick time and then I quit. It was very spontaneous." After accumulating a stack of rejection letters from conventional publishing houses, Garrison published her work last year as a CD-ROM and downloadable e-book through a company called PageFree Publishing. The whole "page-free" idea didn't work out so well—"E-publishing hasn't really caught on with the public yet," says Garrison—so the company is now offering print-on-demand as well. Garrison is hoping to get all her friends and relatives to storm the Amazon Web site when her book becomes available later this month to crack Amazon's top 10 list. The list "is driven by very few sales," she says. "Twenty in one day will put you on. Then maybe one of the bigger print houses will notice." MEANWHILE, ONE OF those big mass-market print houses, Time Warner Books, has just launched a new Web-based business called iPublish, which could potentially prove even more welcoming to outsider authors like Brewster, Austin, and Garrison. On the iPublish Web site, authors can post—for free—an excerpt from their work, which then gets rated by site visitors, including other authors. Top-rated material is eligible to be reviewed by iPublish editors and possibly made available as an e-book or POD paperback. Depending on sales, it may even get put into general distribution by Time Warner. The business model is similar to what's being used at some Internet music sites, which offer recording contracts to bands that are rated highest by listeners. "From now on, you won't need to have an agent or to 'know someone' to get the attention of an editor at a major house," says the iPublish Web site. "For the first time, the publication selection process will be a democratic one, based on merit." Two weeks into the launch, iPublish had already received 400 submissions, according to Hilary Liftin, director of online business development for the New York-based company. Liftin admits that some people have been suspicious of the major publisher's motives, but, she says, "There is no catch—we're really looking for talent." (Well, there's a little bit of a catch: Unlike the self-publishers, iPublish takes exclusive rights to your work. If the company decides to make your manuscript available as an e-book, it also automatically gets print rights—not just to that book, but to your next book as well, should you write one in the same genre.) The move by a giant corporation into the world of Web "talent shows," combined with the ease and affordability of print on demand, could further break down the walls that have kept writers outside the book world's charmed inner circle. "There are about 2.5 million manuscripts sent to U.S. publishers every year and only 50 to 60,000 books published," says Jeff Schwaner, head of GreatUNpublished.com. "That leaves you with a lot of finished books that are not reaching readers." mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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