The Book Industry’s New Danger Brigade

“I thought this was supposed to be a book party,” The Observer overheard a guest say at last week’s launch

“I thought this was supposed to be a book party,” The Observer overheard a guest say at last week’s launch for Mischief & Mayhem, a publishing imprint founded by Lisa Dierbeck, Joshua Furst, D. W. Gibson, Dale Peck and Choire Sicha in collaboration with OR Books. The guest was staring, mouth agape, at two burlesque dancers shaking their bodies atop separate three-and-a-half-foot-high black cubes. His eyes focused on the female dancer with gold doilies covering her nipples and an exposed buttock, rather than on the man, naked save for a small and strategically placed piece of fabric, “Once Upon a Time …” painted in silver glitter across his chest. “There are a lot of naked people here,” said the guest.

Mischief & Mayhem are careful to call themselves a “collective,” not a “company.” The five founders share a frustration with unoriginal stories, soft censorship and a lack of authority within the publishing industry on the part of authors and readers. They are stubborn and fed up and eager to tell editorial horror stories: editors reading a manuscript once, if at all; editors being laid off two weeks after accepting a manuscript; new editors quitting two weeks before the galleys are completed; offers from publications for free ad space to publishers without enough money to typeset ads; publicists not knowing how to spell an author’s name. The Mischief & Mayhem motto is “Because we beg to differ but refuse to beg.”

‘We’re trying for something that isn’t wholesome,’ Peck said. ‘Wholesome is everywhere.’

Mr. Peck, in a pinstriped suit and a purple ascot, stood on a small, elevated stage greeting guests. He is still famous (and infamous) for the scathing reviews he wrote for The New Republic.   

“Now I’m Mr. Nice Guy,” he sighed, passing out drink tickets to the press. The feeling in the room was energetic but also a little frightened. What they are doing is not very complicated, but Mischief & Mayhem is attempting to change the way books are published. With OR Books, which is named for its founders John Oakes and Colin Robinson (together they make up half of the business’s payroll), they sell directly to customers either e-books or print-on-demand paperbacks. If there is a high demand for the book–if they can move roughly 5,000 copies–the rights are sold to a traditional publisher. The first book published by OR, Going Rouge, an anthology of writing critical of Sarah Palin, was sold to HCI in Florida. It became a best seller. Not dealing with Amazon or Barnes & Noble allows authors a larger cut of the profits, around 50 percent. Authors do not receive an advance, but they stand to make substantially more money if their book sells. The imprint will focus on mid-list books that sell between 5,000 and 15,000 copies, an area of publishing that the founders say is disappearing, eclipsed either by one big blockbuster or many small releases each season.

“I think all signs point to go,” Mr. Peck said. “We’re not outsiders, and we’re not running around with bombs in our hands. We’re trying to make publishing better for writers and readers. We’re trying for something that isn’t wholesome. Wholesome is everywhere. Hey, do you need help with that?” He said, turning to the female dancer, struggling to climb back onto her cube. She was one of Mr. Peck’s students at the New School.

“No, no,” she said. “I’m O.K.” The Observer scribbled notes in a black notepad. A middle-aged woman, smelling of white wine, scoffed, “That’s so analog.”

“The system is broken at the core,” Mr. Oakes said, huddled in one of the room’s darker corners. “That’s not news.” He said the “traditional” industry is as excited as he is about this new model, save the editors. “They still are resistant to this new approach. I feel that we can collaborate very successfully with traditional publishers, but they need to be open to some new ideas. I’ve been in this business since 1985. It was about the time the personal computer was widespread. People thought that was gonna save publishing. The only thing that’s gonna save publishing is to start over.”

The imprint’s lead title is Ms. Dierbeck’s second novel, The Autobiography of Jenny X. Mr. Gibson was the chief editor, but all of her fellow founders have had a hand in editing the book, watching it evolve from draft to finished product–a round-table scrutinizing the collective calls a “resource” they will provide authors. The novel focuses on a dysfunctional marriage. The wife, Nadia, has a torrid past with a former junkie, Christopher, a violent radical activist, now serving a 30-year jail sentence, decrepit and miserable. The book is structured around the collision of these two plots. When Ms. Dierbeck was shopping the book around, commercial presses worried it might offend readers. They were concerned with Christopher being an “antihero.” One press asked her to make Christopher “better-looking.”

“Any material that takes risks in any way is really under pressure to be removed from mainstream publishing,” Ms. Dierbeck said. Her first novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller, was published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2003. She received a $30,000 advance and the book earned out, barely; it was critically praised, but not a blockbuster. She is Mischief & Mayhem’s guinea pig, but she is happy to be if it means creative control of her work. “The pressures are, essentially, financial, but from the artist’s perspective we see things we’re really concerned about: ‘Brilliant book, this is great, on page 25 a child dies; can you remove that?’ They don’t actually say the book won’t sell, but that’s the subtext. The other subtext is, ‘Change it or we won’t publish the book.’ Fiction is in danger right now. I feel that commercial pressures have intensified to the extent that editorial feedback feels closer to censorship.”

While the content of the group’s published fiction is not “wholesome,” to use Mr. Peck’s word (he cites a scene in his unpublished novel in which a gay character attempts to infect others with H.I.V. as particularly pugilistic to mainstream editors), the founders are also not avant-garde provocateurs. Mr. Peck is an outspoken anti-modernist who believes that the moment Stephen Daedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, literature took a “wrong turn.” Mr. Furst is a graduate of the decidedly wholesome Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There is nothing in Ms. Dierbeck’s new novel that comes close to the discord of the sex scene between a middle-aged man and an 11-year-old in One Pill Makes You Smaller.

After a few $10 vodka-and-tonics at the bar, everyone circled a stage in the front of the room.

“The publishing revolution is here,” Ms. Dierbeck said to the group. “Commerce has started terrorizing art. She’s getting beaten up. Right now, tonight, art is free.” The crowd applauded.

Mr. Furst took the stage. “I’m going to talk to you about the books we are gonna publish,” he said, explaining they were looking for fiction that will “fuck you up.” Mischief & Mayhem is currently considering manuscripts by Helen Dewitt and Mike Heppner but will initially serve as a vehicle for the founders to publish their own work. Next will be Mr. Gibson’s novel. Mr. Peck’s own novel, The Garden of Lost and Found, is tentatively fifth on the docket. It is a victim of all the industry problems the collective is against, having gone through different editors, multiple imprints, buyouts, layoffs, even deaths. He called the long-unpublished book “cursed.”

“It’s put two companies out of business,” Mr. Peck said. “Seven editors have been fired, one editor–Robert Jones–died. I tell people to know what they are getting in for. When we finally schedule it for publication, Mischief & Mayhem will probably go bankrupt.”

The Book Industry’s New Danger Brigade