October 2002

Jessa Crispin


Bookpunks: So New Media and their very serious stapler

There are thousands of authors in the world who will never publish a book, not because they lack talent, but because the gates to the publishing world have grown too high and are guarded by corporations, not people who love great writing. Whether it is an issue of money, courage, or marketability, hundreds of brilliant pieces of writing go unseen every year. - From So New Media's mission statement

The sight of a chapbook can cause apprehension in a book lover. They bring to mind bad poetry, text and "artwork" blurred from third- or fourth-generation Xeroxing. So when Ben Brown of So New Media mailed me Hand Over Fist, Magdalen Power's short story collection, and I saw that it strongly resembled a chapbook, I thought, "Oh God."

I was wrong. It was really, really good. It didn't read like bad poetry, and it didn't look like it was put together in a dorm room, either. It felt like a real short story collection. It felt like a teaser for a full-length collection that would come later on.

So New Media exists in the space between professional, massive, conglomerate publishing houses and the no standards world of self-publishing. It's an important territory to occupy. It would be impossible to find anything worth reading in the self-published works or chapbooks without quality control. Founders Ben Brown and James Stegall have found a good formula. They search for writers online with an established audience and offer to publish their material to give them a presence in the world of physical publishing.

This works for writer and reader. The writer gets one foot in the online world of free content and the other in the world of for-profit publishing. They may not make enough to live off of, but it may help convince Random House that their audience is willing to pay for their writing.

It works for the reader by doing the weeding out for us. If a publisher consistently offers high-quality, readable books, you can trust that whatever they release next will be worth your money. So New Media's books may be wide ranging in genre - from SF to intimate, personal short stories to essays - but the quality is consistent. And at $6 each (which includes shipping), you don't have to make the $30 commitment of a new hardback book.

SNM's cut from the sales goes back into the publishing. The books have gone from file folders and scrap paper to 4-color covers and illustrations in only a year. They're still stapled together, but perfect-bound books are a goal. The owners of SNM are obviously not making a living off of this venture. Brown works for a real estate company in Austin and Stegall lives on an Army base in El Paso. But their dedication to improving the appearance of the books and the quality of the binding may soon find them publishing "real books."

So New Media came out of the literary magazine Words! Words! Words! Brown was in New Zealand pitching book features to publications, but the editors didn't seem to think there was an audience. Determined to "make reading cool," he put out the first issue of his magazine and instantly sold hundreds with little to no promotion. The decision was made to start publishing other writers.They used copier machines to print the first books, but later enough money was made to buy better equipment. The books are now put together in Brown's living room on high quality printers and a very serious stapler.

Most of the books are sold through the website, but an increasing number of stores are now carrying them. You can now find the books in stores in Austin and Atlanta, as well as Powell's in Portland. The promotion of the books is mostly left up to the authors. Many travel to give readings, and SNM hopes to begin a series of events that will be the antidote to poetry open-mike nights. Their recent Punk/Lit jam paired the writers with punk bands and future SNM writer Neal Pollack. Most open mikes and author readings are dreadfully boring. The author is uncomfortable, the audience is yawning, and both are wondering how soon they can get out of there to go get a drink.

But when you add the energy of a reading by someone like Neal Pollack - who once wore a George W. Bush rubber mask and was "executed" by a woman with a giant syringe at a reading - you have an altogether different kind of atmosphere. Brown wanted authors to be rock stars, so it's natural that Pollack is teaming up with SNM for a book. The energy of punk rock infuses the books they publish. No, they're not publishing the next Updike, but God knows we don't need another one of him.

There are many ways to approach literature, but the Harold Bloom-method doesn't hold much appeal to most people. So New Media's books are quick, devilish little reads. They are punk rock.

They are worthy of your attention.

So New Media's website