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Off the Shelf: Flip it over, huh?

BookPhilosophyApple iPhoneDave Eggers

A few years ago, in a moment I like to think of as inspired, I conceived of my next book. Read in one direction, it would consist of 30 one-page stories; flip it over and there would be 30 one-page essays on the psychology and practice of writing.

Corny as it sounds, I even had a title picked out: "This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey."

I pitched this project to a number of editors over the ensuing months. Aspiring writers and fans of micro-fiction would go nuts. Members of the iPhone generation would embrace it as a quick and accessible form of literature.

The editors did not share my optimism.

"How . . . interesting," they said.

And, "Flip it over? Huh?"

And, "Wait -- you're joking, right?"

I'd like to report that, based on such responses, I simply decided to publish the book myself. But the truth is more damning. I felt self-publishing was beneath me, the province of deluded wannabes. I still craved the legitimacy bestowed by a publisher. So I returned to my cave and set to work on a book with brighter commercial prospects.

The problem was, I couldn't stop thinking about my little manuscript. I kept tinkering with it when I should have been doing other things, such as copy editing the book with brighter commercial prospects.

My wife suggested I seek out a small press. So I chatted with a few more editors, one of whom expressed interest and even mentioned an innovative new royalty arrangement. I should have been thrilled. But every time this editor said the word "royalty," my gut seized up.

I'd stared at so many royalty statements over the years, nearly all of them designed, apparently, to make me feel like a loser. And what I realized -- my gut took the lead on this one -- was that I was really tired of feeling like a loser.

I'd put five books into the world. Aside from a single, inadvertent brush with the extended bestseller list, I remained what literary professionals call a "cult author." Translation: Most of my fans were either former students, relatives or folks who had seen me read.

This might sound sort of pathetic. (It often feels sort of pathetic.) But the more I thought about it, the more the situation struck me as potentially liberating.

If I self-published my little book, I'd be able to take it directly to my circle of readers, and build interest from the bottom up. No marketing plan, no guilt-inducing advance, no royalty statements, no remainders.

So I spent a month polishing a draft. Then I got in touch with an old friend, illustrator Brian Stauffer. Within a fortnight, Brian had e-mailed me two astonishing cover images and a PDF of the manuscript.

A week later, I stood mesmerized before the Harvard Bookstore's Espresso Book Machine, watching the pages of my book being scanned with a red laser, sprayed with ink and cut. It only took minutes for the inaugural copy of "This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey" to slide down a small chute. Not only was my copy warm, the cover was still sticky. I nearly wept.

For my debut reading at the Harvard Bookstore, I convinced Brian to design two new covers and offered readers their choice. The books were printed while I read. I sold 84 copies that night, about 75 more than I tend to sell at a reading.

Given this unprecedented success, you might think I'd be eager to secure an ISBN number and get the big retail bookstores to stock the book. Nope.

I like that it's available only at my readings. A few teachers have assigned the book to their fiction classes, which delights me to no end. But I'm not looking to turn a profit. I charge $10 a copy and make a few bucks on each, enough to subsidize the books I've given away to friends.

Am I suggesting that young writers should run out and self-publish? No. My advice would be to focus on your work and worry about finding an audience later.

Am I advocating the abandonment of traditional publishing? Not at all. I have a book coming out in a few months from Random House, and I hope it sells like hot cakes and makes my corporate overlords piles of dough.

What I am suggesting, though, is that the book industry is undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift. The old way of doing things is collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiency.

At the same time, the means of production are becoming more and more accessible, as they did in the music industry a few years ago. Authors with small but devoted followings would be wise to consider self-publishing among their options.

Cut the corporation out of the equation and equity returns to where it should have been all along: the artists. Writers ( Dave Eggers, Kelly Link) with the courage to launch their own presses have already discovered this. They enjoy the freedom to publish the books they adore in as innovative a manner as they desire.

But your ambitions needn't be so lofty. I foresee a day when writers will be able to sell chapbooks of the work they read at events, just as musicians now do with CDs of live performances. I love the idea that books might become artifacts meant to commemorate a particular human gathering, rather than commodities.

I also love the idea that books will be evolving, rather than static, entities. This is why I add new material to every edition of "This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey."

I'm not fooling myself about the larger trends. In the service of late-model capitalism, technology has ushered in an era of frantic screen addiction. Younger readers have shorter attention spans and no romantic attachment to books.

But technology has also created the possibility for this new kind of DIY book, one that's cheaper, more adaptable and more personal, and that might just serve as a gateway to the rich kingdom of literature.

Almond is the author of the forthcoming "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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