Sunday, September 18, 2011


Heathglyph, our glyph
A fomite is a medium capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another. So, for instance, doctors are not supposed to wear ties as they lean over one patient and then another. Stethoscopes are fomites. Door handles.

It had always struck me that books were fomites, passing the germs of an author's mind to the reading community. And didn't Tolstoy say that
the activity of art is based on the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of others"? He did.

In the last years, I'd been to several readings at which I'd thought, "Wow, that stuff is really good. It should be published." But of course it wouldn't be published. Why? Because it wasn't good in a bottom-line way. It wasn't good in an it's-by-a-well-known-writer-with-a-pushy-agent way. It wasn't good in a sexy beach-book way. It wasn't good in a "I was raped by my priest and survived cancer" way. It was simply good --terrific -- in a literary way.

After thinking enough times "that should be published," it struck me that my wife, Donna, and I should publish it. She and I had published for six years a monthly neighborhood newspaper, The Old North End RAG, and missed doing that. We had over the years been intrigued with the new print and production technologies evolving with home computers and networks, but while I was involved at the level of "Oh man, like wow!", she, the techy, was actually reading the specs and the on-line commentaries, and had a sense of how we might actually proceed. Plus a quilter's stick-to-itive-ness and commitment to detail.

Our old RAG cohort, Ron Jacobs, gave us one of his novel manuscripts to experiment with; we did the editing, design and production work on it, and uploaded it to a print-on-demand service to see what might come back. We feared the worst: some god-awful, do-it-yourself piece of crap we'd be embarrassed to have on our shelves.

But when we opened the envelope, there was -- a book, a book that looked like a real book, a beautiful book with a striking cover, one that someone might actually want to buy. We were actually shocked.

Let me explain "print-on-demand". In the old model, a publisher does a print run -- a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand books printed up -- depending on expectations and promotion budget. These books would then be stored in a warehouse, distributed to bookstores, sold to make up the money spent -- or not. The returns had to be dealt with, and were often just pulped if the book did not do as well as expected. Very expensive, and very wasteful of trees, gas, warehouse space, and therefore quite limiting as to what was published, i.e. only those books that stood a good chance of surviving the gauntlet: best-sellers, genre books of the moment. But not the kind of literary material I heard at the readings.

Print-on-demand, on the other hand, prints a book only after it is ordered and sold. No wasted trees, no warehouse rents, no truck gas. Someone orders a book, or ten, or a hundred, the file goes into the computer, and the printer prints, binds, and ships the copies. This has got to be the wave of the future on a shrinking planet, we thought.
And then there are e-books. You take a manuscript, format it correctly, upload it, and there it is, ready to be downloaded. No paper at all, everything cheap and instant.

These were the technologies with which we wanted to experiment. We thought, too, that we'd like to try another kind of "business" model, one where authors got everything and publishers just enough to survive to publish again. The old way: A paperback edition of one of my novels, for instance, sell a for $15. I get 75¢. (Bookstore pays publisher $7.50, author gets 10% of that sale.) Fomite, using volunteer labor, can give its authors 80% of net income, and take only 20% to cover costs of ISBN numbers, galleys, shipping, website rental, software, etc. If people want, they may actually make some money from their books.

It turns out we can make beautiful books and ebooks very cheaply. The problem remains: how to bring attention to them with essentially zero advertising budget. In union there is strength. A little strength. Each of Fomite's books are advertised in every other Fomite book. Every author brings his or her network to others, and can share review and reading sites. We try to keep Fomite authors in touch with one another for collective efforts, pooling resources for advertising or event participation, and utilizing each other's web skills as we enhance our own.

Donna, a quilter and photographer, is having a great time designing books and covers, and solving tech problems. She can separate Fomite work from her day job. For me, it's more difficult. My job is writing novels. And it's hard to write novels when you spend your days looking at other people's work on the screen. It's hard to say no. It's even harder to edit the work of other writers, especially good ones.

But I think we're doing a good thing, contributing to the writing community, and in some small way to the evolution of American culture. We intended to publish novels, short stories, and poetry which might not otherwise appear in the current publishing environment. Non-fiction, we thought, sells well enough without us, but I was open to something sufficiently strange, and now we've found it with a book called The Derivation of Cowboys and Indians. So I guess we now publish odd-enough non-fiction. And then we thought we'd see how graphics came out, so we are doing a volume of Bread & Puppet Kasper Komix and Tragix. That's way more than we had planned. We wanted to debut Fomite with six local authors. Now we have eighteen -- one from Bulgaria. We'll reopen for submissions at once we catch up with ourselves.

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