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Online Publishing Is the Future of the Novel

Theodore Gioia | March 5, 2014 | Story Reviews

Literature and technology are not on speaking terms. They don't go to same parties or have the same friends. Technology dines at Alta CA. Literature goes to North Beach. On Saturday night, Tech knocks down $15 cocktails at Ruby Skye, and Lit orders PBR at a non-name dive bar. On Monday morning, Tech checks for updates on five blogs, while Literature reads the news with a cup of coffee and the last print subscription to the Chronicle on his city block.

What happens when two people who should be yelling past each other talk instead?

I found myself asking posing that question to entrepreneur, adventurer, and first-time author Eliot Peper, whose novel Uncommon Stock, a startup thriller set in Boulder, was released today by upcoming indie publisher FG Press.

"Traditional publishing is undergoing a revolution similar to the movie and music industry a decade ago, but they haven’t learned much," Peper said. "Authors and readers are going online."

Traditional publishing is run by six international companies in New York City that offer first-time authors what he calls "crap contracts," with draconian terms, terrible royalty percentage and no marketing support. On average, a first-time novelist gets an advance between $1,000 and $10,000 and keeps only fifteen percent of royalties. But Peper's deal with FG Press allowed him to split royalties fifty-fifty and maintain creative control (though without an advance). Peper thinks the model is more democratic. "Online publishing makes the reader—the public—the acquisitions editor. Now the consumer gets to decide the fate of a book rather than an exhausted editorial intern."

But is the book any good? I'm not the target audience (I'm atavistically attached to print media), but I was sold in spite of myself. The story concerns a college undergrad who is recruited by her computer-genius best friend to found a start-up. The book starts with a mountain-biking accident and ends with a cliffhanger car crash. The novel has characters too likable for literature, a style that’s relentlessly readable, and a plot cobbled together from a variety of popular contemporary trends and topics—all the ingredients needed for successful online genre fiction. Peper offered a free excerpt from the novel. Be warned—if you start reading you probably won’t stop.

FG Press, which launched a week ago today, is releasing Uncommon Stock today as their lead title. I was skeptical of this project. I do not trust publishers who try to graft the artificial jargon of technology onto the natural soil of literature. 2013 was the year American fiction discovered the Internet—or at least acknowledged it was here to stay. Tao Lin’s Taipei and Dave Eggers's The Circle, of course. But even The Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen jumped into the fray to point out, "you wouldn't want to read a novel about the Mac." FG Press is small part in a large trend in the publishing industry, which has seen the rise of ebooks from “indie” presses and self-published authors to the top of the genre fiction charts.

Certainly it's reasonable to have a touch of paranoia about the future of literature in the anarchy of the Internet. When you remove the gatekeeper, throw open the gates, and let everyone enter you create a tone-deaf culture. When a thousand people speak at once, you hear the one who can yell the loudest. And it's easy to get caught in this shouting match, screaming so loudly you forget your normal speaking voice. For some writers, like Peper, online publishing might the way to find their voice.

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