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by Robert K. J. Killheffer

My Week as a PoD Person

I've spent a lot of time—too much, really—reading unpublished (and unpublishable) writing. Unsolicited submissions. Slush. If you want to get into publishing, that's usually the price you have to pay.

Until recently, people like me—editors and their assistants—were the only ones who saw this stuff. If we didn't like it, it didn't get published—unless the authors paid to publish it themselves, either alone or through a subsidy publisher such as Vantage Press, and those costs were high enough to scare away most aspiring authors.

Over the past decade, however, advances in digital printing technologies have brought the costs of publication down and paved the way for thousands of frustrated writers to get their work into print. With "print-on-demand" (PoD) technology, subsidy publishers can charge authors much less for their services—which means many more customers can afford them. Robert D. Reed Publishers of San Francisco and 1stBooks Library of Bloomington, Indiana have, in the space of just a few years, turned subsidy publishing into a relatively big business. 1stBooks alone has printed one million copies of its 14,000 titles.

The costs have gotten so low that some new publishing companies skip the subsidy model altogether. PoD lets them pay authors a small royalty on copies sold, just like traditional commercial publishers. The new technology has encouraged some writers to form small publishing companies of their own as well, and the rise of on-line booksellers such as Amazon.com and bn.com has even opened a viable sales channel for these DIY operations—some of their titles have sold thousands of copies. There's no doubt that it's cheaper and easier to publish a book now than it has ever been in the history of the world.

It should be no surprise that this thriving "indie" publishing scene fosters a vigorously iconoclastic mythology. "1st Books Library has made a conscious decision to offer its services to everyone, rather than give control to an elite clique of editors and agents," says their web site. Who needs editors? PoD opens the doors to all comers, and there's no one waiting to red-pencil your precious prose. "1stBooks Library does not make value judgments about the literary merit of books, nor edits manuscripts for style or content," says the site. "The author decides what the public reads, and the public decides if it makes good reading or not."

Indie publishers point to the unquestionable success of books like The Celestine Prophecy (originally published and marketed by the author himself), but there hasn't been a comparable success in the sf and fantasy world, at least not yet. It's certainly true that some potentially marketable books go begging with commercial publishers. Frank Herbert couldn't give Dune away before Chilton—a publisher of auto price guides—took a chance on it. But the conspiracy theory of rejection holds no water. Commercial publishers are eager to find good new work, and the ranks of rejected submissions do not support the notion that the world is full of talented new authors who just can't get a break.

Still, there's some appeal to the egalitarian ethos of indie publishing. There are undoubtedly many worthy books that don't find a commercial publisher simply for financial reasons: It's hard to imagine them selling sufficient copies to cover a traditional publisher's costs. If the indie publishers are living up to their self-proclaimed potential, then we should see some of these otherwise unpublishable gems making their way to market.

Is that happening? Or has PoD technology done nothing but make slush—bound and priced like the wares of traditional publishers—available to the unsuspecting public? To find out, I took a week and spent it with a couple dozen PoD titles recently submitted for review.

*     *     *

Day 1: Wading In

I've got piles of books in front of me, and even a glance tells me I'm in an unfamiliar country, a netherworld that lies between the rawness of unpublished manuscript and professionally published books as I know them. All of these are clearly books, typeset pages bound between covers. But I've seen galleys—uncorrected advance proofs—that look better than many of these. And it's not just the generally rotten cover art (though that is, often, simply dreadful). Judging from these examples, PoD hasn't entirely risen beyond its fold-and-staple roots. The cover lamination seems too thick or glossy somehow. The spines aren't straight. One of these is cut so crudely that the title and back cover copy are nearly truncated. At their best, as examples of the printing arts, these indie products approach the lower end of commercially published books.

A lot of it has to do with clumsy design. The one-word title on the cover of Snugglarea is rendered in no fewer than seven incompatible type faces. And the titles rarely inspire confidence. Slog? Not the feeling you want when opening a new book. The Interstellar Undertakers sounds like some justly forgotten entry in Thrilling Wonder Stories. Space Ark? Is that another Gene Roddenberry project? Some amateur charm is to be expected, but thus far the emphasis is squarely on amateur.

On the other hand, most of these have been printed on good-quality paper, and the hardcover bindings (most are paper) feel tight and solid. Too many commercial publishers have been using cheap acidic papers in recent years—for hardbound books, no less. If indies can use better stuff, maybe the dinosaurs are on the way out.

*     *     *

Day 2: Frights of Fantasy

Maybe I'm starting with this one because I want to know how bad I can expect it to get. The Thoughtmaster's Conduit by Kerry Orchard (New Concepts Publishing, 2001, 280 pages, $6.49, www.newconceptspublishing.com) is the most clumsily produced of the lot, and the text is no better. I didn't come to the PoD world just to bash everything I found, but Orchard's fractured prose strains my best intentions. The point of view changes three times on the first page, and the tense shifts in mid-paragraph without any discernible intent. "He cried out miserably at the anguish of his reality." That's not prose to convince anyone that the commercial publishers are snootily ignoring good new writers.

Fantasy of the traditional sort—the "epic" or "quest" type—remains one of the staples of commercial publishers' lists, so it's no surprise to find fully a third of the sf and fantasy indie titles fall into that category. Thoughtmaster is one example, but I don't want to judge such a populous region by a single inhabitant encountered at random. Unfortunately, Josiah Lebowitz's Guardian of the Stone: Book One of The Verities Silex (1stBooks Library, 2002, 385 pages, $11.50, www.1stbooks.com) is no improvement. Lebowitz pairs nouns and adjectives as if he's Noah loading the Ark: And they shall enter two by two. "The setting sun cast its golden rays upon the rippling lake. A cool breeze blew across the tranquil waters.…" The dialogue is wildly unlikely, and he's rather too fond of ellipses.

The author's note mentions that Lebowitz is "heavily influenced" by "Japanese RPGs, and anime," and the impact of these sources comes through too clearly. The story unfolds like a computer game: Disaster strikes the hero's home village and he wanders the forest bemoaning his fate, when suddenly a hideous monster ("razor sharp talons…needle-like teeth") leaps at him out of the brush. He slays it with "a brilliant white ray" of magical energy. Fourteen more of the monsters follow, and he slays them all. Then he hears a woman's scream, and rushes deeper into the woods to find her battling a troll. He draws his sword.… You get the picture.

In company of this caliber, AErin of Grendelire, or, the Wizard's Wife by Becky Gauger (1stBooks Library, 2002, 377 pages, $14.50, www.1stbooks.com) falls like rain after a month of drought. There's the hint of a functional story—it's not the kind of thing I'd pick up, but it has the elements of a narrative, and the prose doesn't clank like cast-iron cookware. The problems of The Wizard's Wife lie principally in mechanics and tone. Gauger doesn't know when to show and when to tell, and she often undermines her own best instincts. She starts with a reasonably intriguing line: "They'd burned everything." But then she gets too caught up in digressions, so that she quickly loses the interest she'd earned. And when Gauger brings her opening chapter to what might have been a solid conclusion, she tacks on another scene that spoils the dramatic rhythm.

These are the kinds of difficulties that a workshop—or even some how-to writer's manuals—might have solved. The tone problem is trickier, because it seems intentional. Gauger's trying for a breezy feel that just doesn't suit her material. Marela, rescued by the kindly wizard AErin, struggles to adjust to his magical ways: "A creepy feeling squiggled up her spine. Okay, so he'd disappeared. It was no big deal, she argued with herself." Squiggled? No big deal? This might work if Gauger were playing this for laughs, but she's not.

It's hard to tell what Gauger is after in The Wizard's Wife. It begins as the sorrowful story of a girl who may be cursed—everyone around her seems to die before their time. Then she's saved by AErin, and the narrative gets this silly sprightly feel. Before long, that shifts into the heavy-breathing prose of a Harlequin novel, when the elderly AErin turns out not to be so geriatric after all: "Her eyes followed the path of the water as it played among his chest curls then flowed down over a hard belly and strong thighs." Gauger can't seem to decide what kind of story she wants to tell—it shifts shape with every other chapter.

*     *     *

Day 3: Is There an Editor in the House?

Exile to the Stars by Dale B. Mattheis (Ardent Publishing, 2001 copyright, pub date 12/2002, 535 pages, $27.95, www.ardentpublishing.com) comes closest of all these indie books to looking and feeling like a professional job—on the outside. I've seen significantly worse cover art and design on commercial sf and fantasy. This one wouldn't look out of place on a shelf at your local bookstore.

The map is the first sure sign that we're still in indie land. It's the kind of thing an author might give to an artist to render—a rough hand sketch, not a finished work. Bound solidly between hard covers, it's almost embarrassing.

That's a shame because, at least in the early going, the text demonstrates that Mattheis is not without ability. He starts us off in 2025 with a familiar dystopic vision of rampant urban decay, yawning chasms of economic inequality, virtual sex, and prosthetic body modification. It's nothing new, but he does a reasonable job with it. He shows a decent ear for dialogue, and his future slang isn't always wince-worthy.

But Mattheis loses his edge very quickly. Fencing has somehow risen to pop-cultural prominence in this future, and duels, while illegal, are not uncommon. Our hero, Jeff Friedrick, is an ace with the saber, which will prove vital once he's transported to the medievalish world of Aketti. Though it takes only a few pages, the transition from the mean streets to the fencing club inexplicably robs Mattheis of all his skill with dialogue. Now his characters speak like a Civil War reenactment crew—"'Hathwaite, you've seen fit to make statements that question my courage. Mr. Jorgenson has fully related their content, and I find them offensive'"—when they aren't sounding like a beer commercial—"'It's time to kick ass.'" And what are we supposed to make of expressions like "Glory be" or "Holy simoleons"?

Nevertheless, there's still something occasionally compelling in Exile to the Stars—a glimmer which suggests that, with a lot of practice and guidance, Mattheis might be able to craft a decent adventure story. What he needs is an editor. The indie world might view editors as an elitist cabal set to guard the gates of publishing, but a book like Exile reminds us that editors do a lot more than filter out the dross. They help develop writers—and help writers develop their work into professional, publishable form. There's not much an editor could do with Thoughtmaster, but a skillful (and patient) hand might guide Mattheis in focusing his story, avoiding distracting digressions, evening the tone, and maintaining the snap in his dialogue. Exile is never going to match Tolkien, but—with a lot of work—it could match, say, Terry Goodkind.

*     *     *

Interlude: The Voyeur Camera

It's television's fault. Television and movies. Visual media. In so many of these indie publications the narrative point of view slides around like a hot rock on ice, and observations intrude without any clear viewpoint at all. Consider this, from Thoughtmaster: "a skeletal face…whose shifting features left the viewer confused." What viewer? Or this: "The voice was surprisingly strong from such a diaphanous figure." Surprising to whom? Surely not to the only other person in the scene, who knows the speaker well.

These writers' imaginations have been shaped by visual storytelling, in which there's always an implied viewpoint—that of the audience, the camera, the peeping lens. They conceive their scenes as if they're presented on a screen, and when they commit their prose, the camera remains, lurking outside the frame.

There's no other explanation for scene shifts like those in Exile. As Jeff Friedrick and his pal Carl leave the bar where they've met, we're told: "At the bar, a man turned his head and watched them go. He was tall, and a brief flare of light revealed reddish hair. Before the spotlight moved on, odd points of light deep in green eyes gave the impression of motion.…" Gave the impression to whom? The viewing protocols of film and television help us make sense of it: The two men who have been the focus of the scene get up and head for the door, and the camera pans aside to settle on this watcher. His reddish hair is "revealed" to us, the audience. We're the ones who receive the "impression of motion." It's as if, in these moments, the authors are not crafting prose but working out a screenplay. I recall the oldest and most basic advice offered to the aspiring writer: Read! Read! And read some more! If you want to write a novel, don't draw your skills from the big—or the small—screen.

*     *     *

Day 4: Almost

I didn't expect anything better out of Slog by Richard Bellush, Jr. (Robert D. Reed Publishers, 2002, 239 pages, $24.95, www.rdrpublishers.com). It's as well-made as Exile, and the interior design is actually superior, but the cartoonish cover art suggests that we've dropped a notch or two.

Chalk one up for the old saw about a book and its cover.

Slog is a big improvement over Exile. Ignore the regrettable title, forge on through a shaky start, and it turns out there's an engagingly oddball story, some good tight writing, and an author whose competence and control actually get stronger as he goes.

The first and briefest section, "Sweat," introduces us to a global-warming future and a torrid, jungly, overgrown New Jersey. George Custer, one of the scattered survivors of the collapse of civilization, lives a simple scavenger's life in what used to be Morristown, until the sexy, scheming Joelle and the ambitious pirate Ulysses S. Johnston show up to complicate things. The Quebecois have plans to colonize old New York and its surroundings, and George finds himself caught between Joelle and Ulysses as they maneuver for control of the suddenly desirable real estate.

It's not until the second part, "Stars," that Bellush truly finds his feet. The structure is solid, and the writing is as well-crafted as anything I've encountered yet among the indie titles. Save perhaps for Bellush's idiosyncratic placement (and repetition) of adjectives, this paragraph would bring no shame to a professionally published work: "My people. Le Clerc seriously believed that I could somehow launch an army against him. I often have been underestimated, not least by myself. This was the first time I had been so seriously overestimated. I didn't like it any better."

There's no pretense to mimetic credibility in Slog, and Bellush cranks the colorful absurdity up further in the third and longest part, which the author divides into two sections, "Sand" and "Snow." It's the tale, presented as a trial transcript, of Aeneas Custer, raised as George's son but actually the product of Joelle's liaison with Ulysses. Accused of crimes against humanity, Aeneas defends himself with the story of his life—a lively if unlikely romp involving a paisley dirigible, a free-love colony in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a neo-Inca community at Machu Picchu, and exile to an outpost on Antarctica—to say nothing of the nuclear destruction of a large portion of eastern North America.

Slog is reasonably amusing, and it's got a refreshing amateur ebullience about it that makes up for some of the unevenness of Bellush's prose. Most of its obvious problems could be fixed with minimal effort by a competent editor. So did commercial publishing miss the boat here? I don't think so. Slog doesn't add up to anything. It leaves little impression on the mind after it's read. Bellush offers few memorable images of the future, no truly interesting contortions of character, no striking insights about the world, or life, or even New Jersey. There are plenty of manuscripts with just a little something more to chew on, or a somewhat larger potential market, for publishers to choose from.

*     *     *

Day 5: Mondo Trasho

It doesn't take long to rediscover how rare are the near-misses like Slog. Here's a novel by—yes, I'm reading that correctly—Mondo Fax, the Singing Judge. That is, believe it or not, a pseudonym. The author's real name is Alan Glasser, and he's really a judge: He has served as a judge pro tempore in the California state court system for the past eleven years.

Buying Time: A Jaunt in Time and Space (Mondo Fax Publishing, 2001, 297 pages, $11.95, www.mondofax.com) starts from a surreal premise that might have yielded something interesting in the hands of, say, Philip K. Dick. Five L.A. subway riders find themselves mysteriously transported to a world in which time works like money: You have to earn it. But Mondo makes a kind of karmic video game out of the idea—you earn time by helping others, or reliving memories (your own or someone else's) that enhance your personal growth. And it's rendered in aggressively amateurish prose. Buying Time reads like the product of several days of furious typing with minimal forethought. At its best, it races forward with a kind of heedless energy. At its worst, it comes close to incoherence: "The Cardinal paused while the disgusted 'failed con-man' look disappeared, and the supercilious 'holier-than-thou' false prophet ambiance poured over him like sugarless pancake syrup."

Dreaming Pigs by Lynne Carver (Paint Rock River Press, 2002, 256 pages, $11.95, www.paintrockriverpress.com) proceeds with all the steadiness and artistry of a home movie. It lacks focus, and there's a peculiar feverishness to the characters and their behavior. Having narrowly survived a collision with a log truck, Dean Malloy is "choking with emotion" as he thanks the police officer who helped him. When he gets his first look at the hideous sutured gash on his forehead, he's "transfixed" by "the horror of that image." The damage to his looks inspires heroic frustration and self-pity. "Love of beauty now seemed twisted and unfair. The superficiality of all mankind filled him with anger." All that in just four pages. Carver's got the emotional volume turned up so far it's exhausting to read.

Phillip Ellis Jackson's Timeshift (AmErica House, 2000, 211 pages, $19.95, www.publishamerica.com) is the literary equivalent of a B-grade 1950s sci-fi flick. It's got stiff cardboard characters, stilted dialogue, indigestible chunks of plodding exposition—even a high-tech underground lab and a premise based on the unforeseen consequences of nuclear radiation. Though it's set in the year 2416, it even sounds like a '50s movie. "'You ought to marry that poor girl soon and make an honest woman out of her,'" our hero advises his pal. Every scene gets a military-style timestamp: 18:05 hours, 11:46 hours. You can just about see the numerals etched in the lower-left corner of your screen.

Whew. It's starting to look like Slog is as good as it's going to get.

*     *     *

Day 6: Eureka

Having come this far, I can't pass up something with a title like this: Terrapin, or, Captain Megaloman and His Trusty Sidekick Squidley Save the World Once Again (Lithodendron, 298 pages, $12, no web site) by Tilper Manaday. I like the turtle on the cover, and there's something appealing about the playful type in which the title has been set.

What I find inside is the pleasantly absurd story of a young out-of-work engineer and the amazing alien contraption that he finds in his back yard—a machine that can teleport anything he wants to anywhere in the world (or anywhere in the cosmos), if he can give it the right instructions. With the help of his overweight megamillionaire neighbor—the Squidley of the title—Tom sets out to use the machine for the good of humanity, with all sorts of unintended consequences.

After twenty pages, I'm mildly surprised to find that I'm actually enjoying the book. Truly enjoying it. Manaday's got a bright, snappy style and a ready wit. The pacing feels right, the sentences flow, and the goofy story is suffused at times with a surprisingly humane and poignant spirit. It puts me in mind of Bradley Denton's second novel, Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, or Jim Munroe's Flyboy Action Figure (Comes with Gasmask). Tom and Squidley, a pair of well-meaning slackers, inspire affection from the start. "'Woman fear,'" says Squidley. "'I haven't talked to a woman since 1987, except to say how much is the bean salad or some such. You talk to her.'"

And it holds up all the way through. Terrapin has some rough edges and uneven stretches, but it's also got moments that approach real beauty. "Tom wouldn't have noticed her except she was wrapped in some private misery, and he could identify with that."

Terrapin isn't a landmark book. It's not an undiscovered masterpiece. But it is authentically enjoyable, and it's the one item among all the indie product I've looked through that I believe fully deserves a wide audience. Ironically, it's by far the hardest to acquire. You can find copies at eBay's Half.com, but the best way to get a copy is to order it directly from the author/publisher: P.O. Box 1083, Milton, Washington 98354.

*     *     *

On the seventh day, I rested. I had looked upon the world of indie publishing, and while most of what I had seen was not good, some of it actually was. But commercial publishers are not in any danger that I can see. Most readers will have neither the time nor the patience to seek out the few worthy needles in the towering haystack of PoD material. They'll be happy to let editors and agents sort through the slush pile, even if it means missing something like Terrapin. Indie publishing won't remake the industry, but if it allows more writers to fulfill the dream of seeing their work in print, and if it brings the occasional rough gem to light along the way—well, more power to it.

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