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Brian Joseph Davis

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There Are No Unpublished Books Anymore

Posted: 07/13/11 04:23 PM ET

I had an idea recently for an art piece:

-Print out an unpublished novel then delete all files of it.

-Take the printout and set it on the rail of the Brooklyn Bridge and wait for a good wind. Document with video.

-The pages will sink to the water, become woven into pigeon nests, and some pages might even be reclaimed by an artisanal paper mill in Williamsburg and turned into overpriced restaurant opening invitations.

In another age, it would have been a killer piece of performance art. We've seen it in films (The Wonder Boys, Celebrity, The Ghost Writer) as a sudden resolution to a writer character's insurmountable problems, so the idea of pages scattering in the wind is a shared, relatable one. That's the beauty of hackneyed images.

There are two problems with the idea in 2011, making it less than perfect. The first is that I'd likely be Tasered while attempting to do something strange on a piece of vital infrastructure and as I lay on the walkway of the bridge telling a cop through fried nervous system stutters that all I was doing was exploring the "b-b-b-eauty of hackneyed i-m-m-m-ages" I'd probably be Tasered again. The second reason this isn't a perfect idea is that there is no such thing as an unpublished book anymore. Two years ago I started typing a story into a program; my wife has a copy on her computer (and would never allow me out the door to do such a thing on a bridge); a number of publishing professionals have seen it. I'm sure one of my 10 USB sticks has a draft or two. So if multiple copies of the book exist already what does published, that line demarcating notion and distribution, mean for fiction these days?

Maybe it's like a definition of folk culture I toyed with a few years ago that addressed the realities of easy digital recording and Internet broadcasting: folk culture is anything that is yet to be marketed. The definition of published versus unpublished should, likewise, be updated to something similar. Since every word is published the second you hit save, or, as on a blog, publish, this updating certainly locates the problem of books in 2011 as not so much to-be-published as it is to-be-marketed.

There. I've convinced myself to post the entirety of my new book on Richard Nash's Red Lemonade. It's posted, but unmarketed. It's there, but is it published? I don't think so.

"Who is this for?" is the first question of marketing and maybe this process starts now with this posting and my role in it much more active than with any of my previous books. Some would think it an act equal to placing a paper manuscript on the rail of the Brooklyn Bridge for all the good it will do for the book as a viable property, but I have a gut feeling that this may be a perfect idea.

The feedback on Red Lemonade has been instant, good, and challenging to me, the kind of thing an author usually has to wait months for in the traditional publishing process. If a common image for the solution to a writer's problem results in a scene of pages whipping into nothingness as he stands alone, even a little happy at the destruction of his work, which he has come to hate, maybe it's time for writers to get a little more social. I know lots of writers who are nostalgic for that isolation but I think they are too used to being afraid of the public.

While the news this week of John Locke's self-published eBooks selling one million copies speaks to an author's ability to sell the hell out of himself, Mike Shatzkin's take on it suggests Locke would do better with a little bit of help. Call that help publishing, or a community--and the definitions of both are up for a new draft--authors won't be going it alone from now on.

Red Lemonade is the mob, to be sure, but so far it feels like my mob.