Wet Dog Fever
by David Boyne
Long ago and far away, in a galaxy not unlike our own but which no longer exists, in a place without iPads and Kindles and where cell phones were the size of toasters and traffic on the information highway was jammed with the cacophonous beep-buzz-honk-screech of dial-up modems, I came down with an incurable, life-altering fever.
I was living in Oregon and it was January. I had just completed a five-mile bicycle commute in a rainstorm, and as I rolled my bike through the doors of the printing store where I worked, water cascaded from me, soaking the carpet.
My colleague, Patty, asked me, "When are you going to learn to take your clothes off before you shower?"
“I am a wet dog," I said. Then I played the part by shaking my whole body, sending a spray of water in all directions.
Patty's nose wrinkled. "I hope you don’t smell like one."
That's when it hit me. "Patty! That's a great name for a literary magazine!"
"I Hope You Don’t Smell Like One?"
"No! Well, yes, actually that is. But I meant, Wet Dog!"
For the rest of the day, Patty kept her distance, as if I had been infected with a virus.
Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain. They had all contracted and suffered with the self-publishing virus. One of my favorite writers, Will Porter, had the fever bad. Real bad. In the 1890s he bought a used printing press and proceeded to write and publish Rolling Stone(no, not that Rolling Stone). Will Porter’s magazine was a humorous weekly reporting on local politics and other asinine behavior in his North Carolina hometown. Following a long tradition of self-publishing, Will Porter’s magazine lost money even faster than its reporter-publisher-printer could beg or borrow it from friends and relatives. But Will Porter had a day job. He was a teller in a bank. A bank clerk in the grip of the self-publishing fever is a risky proposition. So it came to pass that Will Porter was arrested, charged with embezzlement.
There are moments in every Life, and in every well-composed obituary or novel, for that matter, when Change with a capital C alters both our interior and exterior landscapes. Such a moment came for Will Porter during the train ride to his trial. He was alone. His pockets were filled with money his friends had given him for his legal expenses. What he was thinking and feeling we can only guess. But at a station en route, Will Porter got off the train, walked across the tracks, and boarded a train going in a new direction. He abandoned his past, which included an ailing wife and very young daughter. He took it on the lam, to Honduras, where he continued writing, and is credited with coining the term ‘banana republic.’
Yet only a year later, when word reached Will in Honduras that his wife was gravely ill, he chose to go back to the States and turn himself in. He went to his wife’s bedside, and to her funeral, and to his trial, and to jail.
For some people, like bodybuilders, career criminals, and writers, a jail sentence can be the equivalent of graduate school. After three years, when released from jail, Will Porter was forty years old, a disgraced and penniless convict, and a self-publisher in recovery. But he was also a professional writer who, working from his jail cell, had sold several short stories to New York publishers. These publishers said if he wrote more stories they might buy them. Motivated by that shallow promise, and the deep yearning to keep the disgrace of his past a secret, Will moved to Manhattan, a place where his shame would be puny and anonymous among four million others. Over the next nine years, he would drink two or more bottles of liquor everyday, carouse the city every night, and write nearly three hundred stories under a pen name. He stayed out of jail by wisely leaving the publishing of his work to others. When he was physically, emotionally, and creatively spent, William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry, said, “Turn up the lights—I don't want to go home in the dark.” And died.
The self-publishing fever I contracted was far less virulent than O. Henry's. It never turned me into an embezzler. But then, I did not work in a bank. I worked in a printing store. Which, for a self-publisher back in that other far-away galaxy, was heaven. After a day of wage slavery, I would happily overwork myself late into the night, writing and printing and publishing Wet Dog. My illness drove me to explore and master such things as kerning, creep, and gripper, and it caused me to spend every spare dollar of my puny income on paper and postage, instead of on craft-brewed beer.
Some late nights, alone in the shop, surrounded by a fantastic wealth of computers loaded with expensive graphics programs, color laser printers, high-speed black and white copiers, printing presses, saddle-stitchers, binders, laminators— all at my semi-competent command— I felt myself a bona fide Superman of Self-Publishing. Wet Dog was my Daily Planet. But should this month’s issue need a photograph, I did not have a Jimmy Olsen to holler out the door. I had to go shoot the photograph. Nor did I have a Lois Lane or Clark Kent clamoring for story assignments. Like O. Henry before me, all the stories in my magazine, despite the many bylines such as Finneran James and Newton Golden, had a common author. Me. Each month I also had to come up with the design, do the typesetting and layout, buy the paper, run the copies, fold, stitch, stuff and seal and mail. My weekends were devoted to local distribution. I would pedal my bike around Portland in the rain, the panniers stuffed with plastic-covered bundles of Wet Dog. I would deliver issues to Powell’s bookstore and to the many cafés that sprouted like mushrooms in the Oregon rain.
I soon had scores—scores!—of subscribers. Which both amazed and disturbed me. (Who were these 43 people? I sure wouldn't mail $16 to some nut who promised to send me a magazine filled with his wacky short stories and goofy photographs of his drenched golden retriever.) And I soon had fans. Sort of. There was the woman who e-mailed to me her blushingly revealing poem, Drunk In My Jammies. And there was the letter in my post office box from the person who was so impressed with my short story about what might have happened to Einstein’s eyes after he died, that she or he scrawled a four-word letter: “Brilliant! Send me more!” But failed to provide their name and address, or to enclose a check.
The crest of the wave of my fame was a phone interview with the Assistant Literary Editor of Portland's daily newspaper, The Oregonian. The brief article he wrote for the Friday arts section was headlined, Wet Dog Marks Its Literary Territory.
I came home from work that night certain my answering machine would be filled with messages from hungry agents eager to represent me, the Northwest's latest literary phenom, right up there with Chuck Palahniuk and David Guterson, andto sell my work to New York publishers who had way more money than brains.
There was one phone message. But it was from my landlady. She told me to stop complaining about the constantly running toilet in my bathroom—why should I care, she asked—I wasn’t paying for it and there was plenty of water in Oregon.
Flash forward to this galaxy, to this millennium, to this world where iPads and tablets and Kindles and Nooks proliferate, and driving on the information highway is a speeder’s delight, with buck-a-song music, and pirated movies, and a cornucopia of free pornography all downloading in the background whilst we Twitter away our life on Facebook.
Things are different here. Not necessarily better, but definitely vaster, and faster. Gil Scot Heron was right: the revolution is not being televised. It’s on the internet. Once upon a time in that other galaxy, I was the only person I knew infected with the self-publishing fever. Here in this world, my eBooks are but a handful of the millions of digital books only 30 seconds away from a reader. And most of these books are the ungainly spawn of feverish self-publishers possessing almost no money and even less brains.
Just as in the bygone California and Yukon gold rushes, the rare but frenetically publicized stories of self-publishers who have become millionaires, one 99-cent sale at a time, have created a tsunami of miners (to mangle a metaphor). Everybody is self-publishing their slightest thought. And these slight thoughts are often buried under gnarly grammar and faulty formatting. If the work is edited or proofread at all, someone with Tourette syndrome did it.
To all of which I say, “So what?” Every fever, every revolution, has a terrible beauty. Why would the digital self-publishing revolution be any different?
Fundamentally, nothing has changed. There is still a publisher standing between writer and reader. But Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and their ilk, unlike the paper publishers of the recent past, don’t pretend they care about the quality of what they publish. They are honest corporations, which, like cancers, survive and thrive on growth, on quantity, not quality.
Over time, my self-publishing fever has become an illness I manage, rather than try to cure. Like malaria. Comparing now to back then, the differences are only in detail. I no longer have to pedal my bike in the rain to distribute copies of my work and hope some café rat will read them. Now, with my books available in the giant cyber-air mall of Amazon, even while I am on a hike in the mountains or watching a green flash sunset at the beach, people all over the world can buy and instantly download my books, rain or shine, day or night. Once in a while, they actually do. And sometimes I manage to somehow write something that moves a reader to backtalk me. It delights and amazes me to read their smart reviews of my work—positive or negative—on Amazon.
Perhaps it is only my nostalgia for Wet Dog, but sadly, my self-published eBooks have yet to inspire a response that rivals Drunk In My Jammies.
David Boyne has failed at everything he has tried. Including parenting, marriage, college, gainful employment, algebra, buying low and selling high, mixing red wine with tequila, riding a bicycle across America, and staying perpendicularly tangential to the gutter. At one time he considered becoming a better person. But when told identity theft was illegal he abandoned the idea. When not writing, or boldly staring into space, or scheming for Total World Domination, he exposes himself in public at DavidBoyne.com. His self-published books are available on Amazon.com.