Last year I published on Teleread a lengthy interview with author Jack Matthew as well as a preface to his work. I am happy to announce that since that time I have built an author site about his works and am helping him to digitalize old and new works. The first major work is A Worker’s Writebook: How Language Makes Stories, a writing guide which he used to hand out to his fiction writing students. Now – until September 4 – this ebook is available free for download and DRM-free. (Normal price is 2.99).
But the story of how the ebook got published was interesting.
You may recall that I am writing a critical study of this man’s fiction. Last summer I traveled to Athens, Ohio to meet him, conduct an audio interview with him and talk to him about publishing or republishing some of his works as ebooks. I was in the middle of reading Sassafras, his 19th philosophical satire (which I like to call the “American Candide”) and was surprised to hear about several new fiction manuscripts which he hadn’t told me about.
Matthews was never opposed philosophically to the idea of ebooks; as proud a Luddite as he was, he recognized that ebooks were efficient methods of reading for the gadget-obsessed generation. What you missed by making the digital leap was provenance, a sense that the physical book existed as an object in time and space, with a unique history (as well as annotations, physical decay and other peculiarities). With an ebook, you had something untraceable; it was practically impossible to tell where it came from or how it was made. I showed him two ebook devices I had: the Sony Reader and the iPad (which I had just bought). He wasn’t impressed by the Sony Reader (its appearance seemed downright primitive compared to the gorgeous incunabula from 1488 which he kept in his living room). About the ipad, he acknowledged that it had interesting possibilities, but for the moment he was already fine with his current books, thank you very much. (And looking through the bookshelves at his house, I noticed that he had a lot to keep him busy). At the same time, his wife Barbara, who had been watching how I flipped the pages in ibooks and browse through photos with my fingers, said, “I want one of those!”
We had corresponded about ebooks and publishing trends, of course. (Matthews had written a book in the 1970s, Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit and several essays about the economics of publishing). But what dominated the conversation for the last day of our visit was a Teleread article I read the night before which said that Amazon was selling more Kindle ebooks than hardcover. Even for a diehard ebooker like myself, that news was astounding.
As much an enthusiast as Matthews was about print books, it was clear to him that things were changing, and the faster he switched over, the better. The case I made to Matthews was a simple one: Half.com and Amazon.com were selling old copies of Matthews’ books for next to nothing – with most of the profit going to Amazon/Half for shipping & handling. Why not digitalize everything, charge a modest fee and reclaim the profits which used booksellers were making – and with 70% royalties!?
Matthews was pretty much sold on that idea, so we talked about which book to digitalize first. At first, we talked about doing the 1971 novel Tale of Asa Bean, this hilarious tale of a superintellectual sex-obsessed philosophy grad student who works at a grocery warehouse and plans a ridiculous protest at a nearby museum. I loved that work (and it reminded me a little of Confederacy of Dunces), but because of the vagaries of publishing schedules, it never received a major review until after it was out-of-print. We played around with various ways to proceed, and I said, “What about Writebook?”
“Of course!” he said, We had both completely forgotten about Writebook! This was a how-to book about fiction writing which Matthews had put together for his OU students in the 1990s. On a whim, he had mailed me a photocopy of the book (and in fact, I republished an excerpt of on Teleread last year). It was fun and quirky and the kind of thing which inspires new and seasoned writers alike.
A year later, it is done, and for a special one month promotional period, it is free. Enjoy the freebie – and if you enjoyed it, feel free to buy the ebook, tell your friends about it or post a brief review on Amazon or B&N. (Reviews, please, reviews!). One more thing. By November or so, we’ll be releasing an ebook version of Hanger Stout, Awake, the 1967 work about adolescence which received plaudits from Time Magazine and Eudora Welty (“I like it, and warmly admire his sturdy subject and delicately restrained treatment. It seemed to me blessed with honesty, clarity, directness, proportion and a lovely humor. . . .")
Here is me and Matthews together in his background. (More photos here)