While it may be true that “everyone has a book in them,” for some it’s more true than others. Dan Johnson, a writer and one of the founders of Burritophile.com, recently proved that not only could he finish his book, but took steps to make it available via e-books and a printed edition.
Dan’s book, The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits, is a mystery unmistakably set in San Francisco, California. Disparate elements are compellingly strung together in a story involving high-end toilets; a dead, mysterious roommate; liars; hipsters; good beer; the politics of business; public transportation; and bureaucratic red tape.
As the business of publishing itself has proven rather “perplexing,” with the ever-burgeoning e-book market and the seemingly ever-dwindling print business, we sought Dan’s opinions not only on the creative aspect of completing a book, but on the publishing process, and the potential promise allowed by the changing paradigm.
Osmosis Online: Starting from the beginning — what was the genesis of writing the The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits?
Dan Johnson: Funny story. I moved into an apartment in San Francisco in 2004 with a couple of roommates who already lived there; I had found it through Craigslist. The master tenant was a Scottish guy named Bruce. We lived like roommates do sometimes — we crossed paths, went out for the occasional beer, but didn’t become friends or anything. One guy left and was replaced by another guy. At the end of 2005, Bruce went (he said) back to Scotland to visit his family. He never came back; left his room, his clothes, his bed, a cell phone full of numbers, and a bunch of business cards. We called every number in the phone — only two people admitted to knowing him. All of the cards came up blank. We never found out where he’d gone.
That put me to thinking — in this age of cell phones and highly personalized communication, you can live with people and never once interact with the important folks in their lives — parents, friends. It used to be that the house phone would ring and you’d take a message, talk to dad, and go from there.
I was in grad school and started writing a story based on that idea — it was going to be short, and then it just kept going.
OO: What gave you the idea to put it on Amazon as an e-book? Was it a difficult process? Do the existence of services like Amazon and Google Books, etc., democratize the book publishing process in your opinion?
How do you think it compares to the general democratization of self-publishing via the web? (I guess, contrasting with your experience at Burritophile, etc.)
Johnson: I spent about six months doing the submit-to-an-agent thing, and then I became impatient and bored with the whole process; the fallout from the economic crisis meant that everybody under the sun was writing and submitting fiction. Agents and publishers were pretty much swamped, and I was getting responses after two and three months. Too long.
So I went solo. I did a bunch of research (thank goodness for author message boards and self-publishers who have come before). I ended up doing an e-book conversion with Smashwords — that gets me into B&N, Apple, and Sony — another e-book with Amazon, and using Amazon’s Createspace for the physical book.
I think that publishing as we knew it is going to be radically changed in 10 years — at this point, if you’re a new author, a publishing house gives you typographical services, a literary stamp of approval, and marketing. If they decide to spend marketing dollars on you. They may not. Amazon and Google do a wonderful job at democratizing the publishing process — Kindle Singles as a way to get novellas and short stories out there, the simple lines they’ve set up for distribution…it’s pretty amazing.
Compared to straight Web publishing, though — it’s so much harder, and so much more work. Look, getting 120,000 words right is very, very hard work. I’ve done my own editing, had reader friends go through it, and hired a professional editor for copy and continuity. There are still things wrong in the text, I’m sure. And I’m sure there are typos still in War and Peace. Web publishing allows you the luxury of instantaneous edits. Once a physical book or e-book is in the reader’s hands, you cede all control.
OO: What’s the deal with the physical edition?
Johnson: It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s quite nice. There’s actually still a formatting problem (I’m fixing it at some point in the next couple of days — Createspace allows updating), but I’m happy with how it turned out. I’ve learned some interesting things about typography, word orphaning, and things like that. And my pal Aaron Best is an amazing designer — he did the cover.
OO: Has anything surprised you, positively or negatively, in the process of publishing? How about once it went on sale?
Johnson: No real surprises on the sales side, although when I’ve gotten tweets from people I don’t actually know who like the book, that’s always a happy thing to see. Publishing — well, I was surprised at how long it actually took me to do it — it took well over a year between deciding to go solo and getting it actually done. I had to build a Web site, build the e-edition, figure out all the print stuff, and do all of that while getting engaged, going on a long trip, getting laid off, finding a new job, and freelancing. And there’s also some…call it percolation time. Sometimes you have to let things cool off between edits or proofing rounds.
OO: What might you do differently if you knew at the beginning of the process what you know now?
Johnson: I’d have hired a copyeditor earlier on [Ed. note: bravo!]. No question. That would have saved me four months and endless angst on the physical-book proofing. Not much else comes to mind — there are little things that I learned, but most of it was through the experience of others whom I found online.
OO: Getting to the story itself — are you a longtime mystery fan? As a reader, my thought throughout was that you were interested in showing off the vibrancy and uniqueness of San Francisco — as well as lovingly busting the city’s chops — as much or more than anything else. Was it a case of “write what you know” or getting something off your chest?
Johnson: I’m not a longtime mystery fan, but I’ve recently (in the last five years) become a huge fan of hard-bitten noir stuff — John D. Macdonald, Lee Child, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, and other guys like that. That interest was sparked by a literature class I took in grad school on detective fiction. I’ve been reading tons of noir ever since.
As far as writing what I know — I think everyone does that. So much of Stephen King’s early work is really about Maine, for example — he’s writing what he knows in the context of the truly bizarre. I love San Francisco with an almost unholy passion; it’s the greatest city in the world, and yes, I’ve lived in a few others. For the main character, I just took what I see and what my internal reactions to things around town are and turned the volume way, way up. I’m a good bit more tolerant and less bitter than Alex is (I hope), but it’s fun to kind of let loose. Hm. I guess that means I was letting some stuff off my chest.
I guess I could have answered this with a little Google, but are those high-end toilets from the book — $10K ones — for real?
Johnson: Yep. The biggest market for them is, I think, in Japan, where they have toilets that basically give you a full hot-water enema. But you can get some ridiculous things here. I picked on Toto because their Web site was and is totally ridiculous. I don’t get why you need to have such flowery language associated with taking a dump.
OO: The end of the book teases more to come. Any plans, or was that sort of a “and they lived somethingly ever after” kind of ending?
Johnson: It’s a tease. I wanted to leave it open to coming back to this world and the bumbling detective thing.
OO: What projects do you have in the works right now?
Johnson: Well, I’m getting married. [Ed. note: CONGRATS!] That’s a big project. Writing-wise, I do have a few dozen pages of another Alex story in the bag, but I put it aside because I got really interested in working on a non-fiction bit. Basically, I was out of the country traveling around the world for the six months or so around 9/11, and the upcoming 10th anniversary of that day made me revisit some of my old journals and photos. I was just doing a bit of writing, and it’s turned into a total beast; I guess it’s about the experience of being an American abroad at that time and the strange and poignant things that happened. At one point I was in a bar in a small town in Slovenia and word spread that I was there — the band dedicated a song to me and Americans everywhere — a U2 cover — and then people kept coming up and telling me how sorry they were. I was crying by the end of the song. Not the kind of thing you’re used to as an American abroad. It’s really interesting to look at that through the prism of the last 10 years.
And, of course, there’s some funny stuff as well. It’s not an international trip story without the protagonist going through some near-alien digestive hijinks. We’ll see where it goes.
Thank you, Dan Johnson, for sharing your experiences and impressions of self-publishing with us! For folks that want to learn more, check out the Amazon page ($4 for the Kindle version is hard to beat, and it was easy reading on my Android); the book’s Facebook page, or visit perplexingproblem.com.