THE BLOG
12/16/2010 03:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Literary Guerrillas Take Barnes & Noble

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Photo: Jack Lenk

The chilly expanse of pavement in front of the Union Square Barnes & Noble megastore was still empty last Tuesday at 6 PM. The tall security guard inside was unaware that the author Lisa Dierbeck was supposed to be reading in 25 minutes. The old male employee at the information desk was also unaware. At 6:15 people with red flowers pinned to their hats or lapels started entering the store. They took posts waiting in front of display tables. They asked clueless staffers about a Lisa Dierbeck reading. They scanned for others like themselves. Soon small clusters of flower wearers started sprouting all over.

The flower wearers were following the instructions of a message posted online the night before by the newly formed publishing collective and imprint Mischief and Mayhem. It was titled, "M+M Takes B&N!" At 6:25 supporters were to mobilize outside of the store to witness a guerrilla reading meant to "reclaim literature from soulless retailers."

M+M is five peeved writers responding to the commercial publishing industry, which they feel values marketability over content and greedily grants most writers only measly returns. They hold particular scorn for mega retailers, such as Barnes & Noble, which stock only commercially viable books on their shelves, thus influencing publishers and editors to provide them. The imprint will sell "adventurous, strange, disturbing fiction" directly to customers through e-books or print-on-demand paperbacks: a process that cuts a multitude of costs (the bookstore's cut, the distributor's cut, shipping, pulping) so that the writer can stand to make a 50 percent profit.

Outside the store three of the five founders of M+M were now huddling in the frigid cold. Dale Peck wore a bomber hat and coordinated with supporters by phone. Joshua Furst wore a brown leather jacket, cowboy boots, and kept a close watch on time. The small thin Lisa Dierbeck was hidden under the flaps of her bomber hat. She would be reading from her latest novel, The Autobiography of Jenny X, which is also the imprint's first title. It has fared successfully under the M+M model. She held a bouquet of roses and stiffly offered them to supporters.

"The retailers are too powerful," she said. "It's very hard to get adventurous fiction through now." She recounted "horror stories." A friend was told by publishers to remove a child that dies on page 25 of her novel "because it could be considered depressing." Another friend ("she is very respected, but I can't mention her name") suffered poor sales on her previous book and was told by her publisher "in no uncertain terms that her career would be over if Barnes & Noble didn't stock her next book," so she'd better make sure they like it. When Dierbeck first shopped Jenny X around, publishers suggested that she should make its protagonist "better looking."

"These seem like things a Hollywood studio would say," Dierbeck said. "We want to create an alternative."

The rose clusters were quietly growing inside the store. Robert Marshall, a writer who had heard of the event through a friend, held a large rose to his side. "There's a sameness to the books here," he said. "Books shouldn't be like Starbucks. There isn't really a free market for books. The business is more like a cartel." Eric Stowers, also a writer, waited a few tables away. "I'm here because writers don't make enough to live on unless you sell loads of copies," he said. "M+M is cutting out the middleman, the large staffs that large publishers have, and the cuts retailers take out of it. I'm not published yet, so this seems like a fascinating experiment." An alarm suddenly started to blare from the front of the store. A shopper had accidentally bumped into it. "Counter intelligence," Marshal joked.

Furst strode in the store at the designated reading time. "It's time to go outside," he said, although he needn't have said anything. Synchronized by the time, supporters began to stream outside from various parts of the store. For a brief moment the chilly vestibule was filled with nothing but flower wearing supporters. Peck stood in front of the store's window maintaining a revolutionary stance as a group of 30 or so assembled on the pavement. He held a speech in hand. Next to him a supporter held a sign for Jenny X that declared, "Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You."

Peck opened by citing rave reviews of Jenny X from Joseph O'Neil and the New York Observer. Then he added, "It's also a book you won't find on the other side of those windows. Not because Barnes & Noble refused to stock it, but because we didn't want it there." As Peck read out depressing industry statistics and explained M+M's mission statement an old man wearing a Penguin Classics tote bag walked by. The man leaned his head into the crowd to listen but soon pulled away uninterested and continued into the store. "Readers of the world unite," Peck concluded. "You have nothing to lose but the chains." As a freezing Dierbeck took the stage, Peck pointed to a young M+M intern holding a laptop and announced, "You can buy Lisa's book on that computer courtesy of Barnes & Noble's WiFi!"

Two hours later, as an impromptu celebration raged at Peck's St. Marks Place apartment, the pavement in front of Barnes & Noble was empty again. The security guard who hadn't known about a reading was still oblivious to the one that had taken place. The elderly male staffer was also still unaware, now dutifully restocking stacks of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. A young staffer at the information desk nervously declined to talk about any store activity but suggested that corporate communications might know more instead. He jotted down their phone number from memory.

One security guard had started his shift precisely as the reading began at 6:25 but had also failed to see any guerrilla activity. "No. I didn't see anything," he said. "I don't think anyone did. A lot happens here. This is a very big place."