On Paper

So New Media: something old, something new, something borrowed, something to do

Ben Brown and Ani Moller
Ben Brown and Ani Moller (Photo By John Anderson)

The Onion: Around the time The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature came out, you were quoted as saying you were going to "kick the ass" of big publishing. Now that you've signed with HarperCollins, is it safe to say those plans have been delayed?

Neal Pollack: I think I actually said, "I'm going to kiss the ass of big publishing." It was a typo. I guess it's been delayed to some extent. ... I learned an important lesson, which is that book publishing is dominated by large corporate publishers and chain bookstores, and you're going to have to tango with them to some extent if you want to make a serious living as a fiction writer. You can publish some stuff with independent presses and get away with it, and even prosper from it, but in the end, there's no way in today's book-business environment that you can make a real solid living. ...

-- The Onion A.V. Club, March 27

Thirty-year-old Web designer/micro-publishing magnate/writer for New Zealand Saturday morning cartoon Squirt/SXSW Interactive darling/devoted husband/self-proclaimed "Internet rock star"/South Austin resident Ben Brown doesn't necessarily want to change the literary world, and he didn't stuff The Austin Chronicle "Best of Austin" 2002 ballot box (the results of which will be available Sept. 27), online or otherwise, either. I asked him. He didn't. I had heard that he might have, so I rather openly accused him. He denied it, saying "I swear, I cast only one vote myself. I did, however, write a wee little essay encouraging other people to vote for Uber and myself. I was sincere in my suggestion to vote for us as the best Austin webzine because, as far as I know, there are no other webzines equal to my own. Please do not hold it against me."

That, I'm afraid, will be left to the court of public opinion. (Someone here already refers to him as "that self-promoting bastard.") In the meantime, it might be beneficial to focus on one of Brown's undeniably altruistic pursuits, So New Media. With the motto "Little Books, Big Ideas" and the disclaimer "While you might take offense to the contents of this work, the people who made it mean you no harm," SNM was founded in 2001 by Brown and James Stegall, a mysterious employee of the U.S. military who lives in El Paso. Stegall is a talented writer. He runs SerialText.com, a sort of zine, an outlet for writers of fiction and partial fiction and the like, that publishes novels in pieces. He and Brown are friends. They are "ultra-micro-mini publishing" books out of a spare bedroom in a house that Brown shares with his wife, Ani Moller (who, like Squirt, is from New Zealand) on South Second Street.

"Some people, maybe on the Internet, are like, 'You know, you're not really making books, you're just kind of stapling things together,'" Brown says, his eyes going wide and then back to sly. "But who the hell's to say that a book has to be leather-covered with gold inlaid lettering? We're like halfway in between a zine and a trade paperback, and I think that's a really good place to be."

He glances around the room, the room, a modest, smallish, spartan thing that happens to be closing in around me with equipment: a few computers and drafting tables; big, gawking monitors; boxes heaped upon one another atop groaning shelves -- everything maybe approaching avalanche; a giant stapler that resembles nothing more than an elaborate S&M device; a laminator; "zany promotional materials" including Mini-CDs, pins, and bookmarks; a laser printer; and a paper cutter straight from Germany.

This is where Brown makes books (there's a QuickTime of him doing just that with Magdalen Powers' Hand Over Fist at www.sonewmedia.com). This is where Moller -- "I don't come up with many ideas, or decide whether to publish something or not, but I'll tell Ben if something sucks" -- helps Brown make books, copy editing them, packaging them, and shipping them out when people order them, 90% of the time off the Internet. Soon, Brown says, So New Media will satisfy the demands of those who do in fact judge books by their covers: Sometime next year, if sales continue at their current pace, perfect-bound and offset-type releases will be a reality. And the house is already launching its first four-color volume, Adam R. Rakunas' Greaseguns and Feathers, a sci-fi romance with illustrations by Dan Santat that are so potent it doesn't matter if the story sucks. Which, by the way, it doesn't.

"Ben, could you shut door so I can watch TV," Moller doesn't quite ask from the living room. Brown is growing animated. This is where Brown and his team of advisers planned out So New Media's Punk/Lit. Jam -- featuring readings by Stegall and SNM authors Jamie Allen and Powers, not to mention Neal Pollack as emcee, music by Alphalpha Male and the Dakota Smith, and, of course, one thing or another from Ben Brown -- which is happening this weekend at Club DeVille. It's all very exciting.

Books String

Illustrative Author Interview/Testimonial No. 1

Atlanta's Jamie Allen (LandofCalpernia.com), The Horrible Humour & Other Stories

Austin Chronicle: What kind of refuge does an outfit like So New Media provide for someone with your style and world-view?

Jamie Allen: I don't think style and world-view have all that much to do with it. If I had a different style and world-view and still knew how to communicate that through writing, they would still want to publish me, I'm sure. Outfits like SNM are on the cutting edge of the New Fiction or the Punk/Lit. literary movement, whatever you want to call it. They provide young writers who find success on various lit Web sites with the legitimacy of getting published in print, and the experience of selling their work to the masses using whatever marketing techniques they can imagine. They help writers build their names and their body of work. SNM et al. are cultivating a generation of authors, giving them a new outlet to express themselves, bypassing the traditional literary journals, which take months to simply reject work. SNM is doing a very good and worthy thing.

AC: Would it be fair to call you the Richard Ford for people who couldn't care less about Richard Ford?

JA: That's pretty good. I don't think it's fair to Richard Ford. I'm a hack. He's a PEN/Faulkner winner. But can I quote you on that for my next book?

AC: No. Maybe. Tell me what Saturday's Jam means to you. What does it represent?

JA: First and foremost, I'll get to meet SNM founders James Stegall and Ben Brown in person and thank them with giant hugs. Maybe I'll buy the house a round. No, I won't do that. Also, it'll be fun to return to Austin; last time I was there, I was writing for CNN.com on SXSW. And finally, it'll be nice to meet in person with Gen. Neal Pollack, the Greatest Living American Writer. I haven't seen him since we played on the same tennis team in Rome. The world has certainly changed since then. That brings me to the last point here: The SNM Punk/Lit. Jam represents the start of a revolution, led by Gen. Pollack and his army, of which I'm a proud member (Sniper, First Class). We aim to dethrone Richard Ford et al. and then be dethroned by some young punks who come along when we're PEN/Faulkner winners.

To give you an idea of So New Media's catalog and demographic, it might be helpful to mention that its No. 1 bestseller (more than 200 copies) thus far has been Greg Knauss' Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard, a compendium of the author's capricious vignette-size studies of fatherhood. It's a short, brisk read -- SNM's offerings usually top out at 65 or 70 pages with a $6 or $7 price tag -- and it's funny. As hell. It's also the work of a Web writer with his own Web site (EOD.com). And its sales are about to be surpassed by another short (28 pages), though altogether unbrisk, read by another even more prolific young writer with her own Web site who found her following on the Web. But we'll get to her later.

The Web is the river from which So New Media drinks. While it might have lost its luster in terms of the "content is king" and dot-com constructs, the Internet is still the most fertile of crescents for the unpublished writer in search of an audience. Any writer. Any audience. Brown and Stegall have made publishing those cultish bloggers and scribes part of their mission. And regardless of whether you believe that there's quality stuff to be found online, the fact is, there is. Check out Sweet Fancy Moses, Eyeshot, Opium, Flak, Wetmag, The Morning News, or The Manual if you need convincing. Or try such like-minded independent print publishers as Portland's TNI or New York's Soft Skull Press or Austin's seriously self-publishing Cafe Armageddon or Charles Romalotti of Layman Publishing. Lots of people know about those places. Lots of people don't. In between is So New Media.

"I think the Web is as relevant as it ever has been, if not more relevant. Easily," Brown says. "There was a certain group of people who knew about Might magazine, but then McSweeney's got its popularity, or at least a great deal of it, from the Web. As for the value of the Web in terms of getting the word out, weblogs and all of the stupid Web sites are great; that's not exactly our target market, but getting people to talk about us and link us and all of that stuff, even if they're saying nothing, even if it's totally vapid, it does start the machine."

Books String

Illustrative Author Interview/Testimonial No. 2

NYC's Magdalen Powers (FoolsParadise.org), Hand Over Fist

Austin Chronicle: Your stories are incredibly personal, not necessarily autobiographically, but intimately. What drives you to tell them?

Magdalen Powers: It's kind of just my compulsion. Writing is something that you do by yourself, and reading is usually something you do by yourself, and I think primarily that it just connects people. It helps people feel like they're not alone in whatever it is that's happening in their life, in what they're thinking or what they're doing. I feel like, I don't know, that writers almost have a responsibility to be more immediate, and not necessarily more emotional, but more honest.

AC: How did you end up coming to So New Media?

MP: We have this sort of weird everyone-knows-everyone bizarre Web community despite the fact that everyone lives all over the place. And I met Ben in New York, actually, and I kind of kept track of his various peregrinations. I know he's prone to hyperbole, but that's what's so great about him; I mean, he's really enthusiastic. I remember when he started So New Media I was so dubious of anything like that working out in 2001. But I think it's turned out to be such a good idea.

AC: What about Saturday's Jam?

MP: Well, I realized that I was the only female-type person on the bill. So that's kind of weird.

[Ed. note: Magdalen Powers is a former folksinger, works at a hospital, has had a story translated into Romanian, has an incredible reading voice, cooks things like "eggplant stuffed with rice, sausage, toasted pine nuts, dried apricots, and mint," studies French, goes to Catholic Mass, and plays softball with jazz musicians in Central Park. I just thought you should know. She didn't tell me to tell you.]

"I don't think that we're going to topple Random House, and I don't know that I'd even want to," Brown replies when I ask why so many Internet and independent publishers insist on insisting that big publishing is dead. "But I think it's really important to have small publishing companies and resources available for the writer who's not looking to get rich off their first novel, who's just looking to have people read it.

"They will only publish things that they think have a 99% chance of selling a zillion copies. So if your thing is slightly unmarketable, even if it's brilliant, it's like, 'Oh, now, we don't really publish a book about whatever, a guy who sleeps with little girls.' I mean, Nabokov would never get published nowadays."

I'm thinking bullshit. He and Moller are playing footsy.

"Being able to go to that little guy is really important for the good of literature, highbrow and lowbrow."

I'm thinking kind of, okay. Maybe. They're cute together.

They begin lamenting the state of the "archetypal modern novel," as well as readings and booksignings across the country. It comes down to this, in their minds: They're fighting snobbery and elitism. They're adding more good bacteria to the book culture. They're playing punk rock in a "hard business." This is not a job, Brown explains, "it's, like, the best hobby." They manage to dis Infinite Jest. Refreshing. They're talking access, entertainment. I'm thinking Updike and Wolfe, entertainment. Books! I just said good luck. But then Brown hypes Saturday's Punk/Lit. Jam: "It's not a class war or anything, but who wants to sit in some stuffy academic setting listening to someone drone when you could be drinking, dancing, listening to writers read, and read well, for a few minutes, and then listen to more music?"

"Yeah," Moller sneers, adjusting her glasses. "Readings these days are no fun, unless it's your mum reading to you in bed." Brown looks at her and laughs. He looks at me.

"Our fiction isn't going to enlighten anyone," he says, almost solemnly. "But it's a gateway drug."

Books String

Illustrative Author Interview/Testimonial No. 3

Austin's Neal Pollack (NealPollack.com), TBA

Austin Chronicle: So are you going to write a book for them, or not?

Neal Pollack: Oh yeah, absolutely. The deal is that I've got about 10,000-15,000 words' worth of post-Anthology material ... So I've been doing this column for the New York Press, sort of a chronicle of the greatest living American writer during wartime, political satire. A little less based on making fun of self-involved writers and a little more based on making fun of the evil fascist monsters who are in charge of our country right now. But it's not enough material to make a book out of, unless you're talking about a So New Media book. Because, you know, for Ben, for So New Media to publish a 10,000-word book, that would be their equivalent of Remembrance of Things Past compared to the size of the books they're publishing. But I just like the way he goes about his business. He's like, "Okay, I'm gonna publish a book." ... Slaps some cover art on it, binds the books together himself, sells them on the Internet, and we're off. They have good business sense, and they get things done.

AC: Greil Marcus called what McSweeney's was putting out during their heyday "the opposite of writing." Would he say the same thing of So New Media?

NP: I don't know, but I think that's old fogey bullshit on the part of Greil Marcus. Half of his books are completely unreadable. What is he talking about? Here's mister I love the Dadaists, I love the Situationists, and he's calling something the opposite of writing? What the fuck does he know? I think that's generational animus. He'll dry-hump Sleater-Kinney but if someone that age puts out something experimental in terms of literature ... gimme a break. It's like, go listen for signs of the apocalypse in the Basement Tapes some more, Greil. Or come on down to Austin. I'll fight you bare-knuckled. Motherfucker. ... I mean, it might not be the best writing you've ever read, but why should it be? It's the same kind of writing that's been going on in zines for years and years. It's the same as punk rock, which sounded godawful then and to this day sounds godawful. It's just now that they're being called books. It's just another avenue to become a writer. Content matters to me, but from this perspective, it really doesn't. Who cares what they're saying and how they're saying it? As long as there's a certain cultural attitude toward it. end story

So New Media's Punk/Lit. Jam takes place Saturday, 9pm, at Club DeVille. For more information, or to order books or submit work, consult www.sonewmedia.com. You can also find So New Media books at Creatures and, Brown reports, soon BookPeople.

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