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The Friendly Bookseller Recommends: John Dies at the End

While loading up a cartful of books to put on the shelves today, I came across a surprising new arrival: the freshly released hardcover edition of John Dies at the End, by David Wong, published by St. Martin’s Press.  I wasn’t surprised that the book was out; I knew it was coming; I was surprised to see it in hardcover, with arguably some of the best cover design I’ve ever seen on a horror title.  This is not to say that John Dies at the End is not deserving of such treatment, but writers, like most creative fields, rarely get what they deserve.  The industry makes its decisions based on perceived market value, rather than creative value.  Some of the best written work the world has ever seen may languish in obscurity, never seeing release in any release beyond the cheapest format, while formulaic shit that may or may not be worth the paper it’s printed on gets media-hyped hardcover release and an “Oprah’s Book Club” stamp.

That is, hopefully, all of the ranting I will do in this post.  My surprise at the sight of John Dies at the End in gorgeous (if somewhat horrific) hardcover was the pleasant sort.  David Wong is not a Dan Brown or a Stephenie Meyer.  He doesn’t have a fistful of successful titles to prop up his latest release.  As far as I’m aware, John Dies at the End is Wong’s first book.  First time genre fiction authors do not get hardcovers.  They do not get top-dollar cover design.  They do not get ordered by the dozen by bookstores.  But David Wong has gotten all of these things, despite being a horror author (comedic horror, no less) without another title to his name.  So what’s different?  What makes Wong so special?  For the answer, we look at the book itself, and the not-entirely-unique but still remarkable history of John Dies at the End.

It did not begin as a book.  It began in 2001 as an online serial, freely available for anyone to read.  I remember reading the first chapter in 2007, never getting any further due to my aversion to reading lengthy works on a screen.  Wong edited the serial into a manuscript in 2004, but it wasn’t actually released in print until 2007, and then only via small press.  Small press and self published releases don’t tend to get a lot of attention in the vast and terrible book market of today.  This, however, is what makes Wong’s work special.  John Dies at the End was read by tens of thousands of people before it ever saw release in print.  When it became available on Amazon via Permuted Press, there was an audience already waiting.  According to Wikipedia, by the time the free online version was removed in fall of 2008, it had been read by 70,000 people.  That kind of number is hard not to notice.  St. Martin’s Press noticed first, apparently.

I’m not terribly familiar with St. Martin’s.  A quick perusal of their author lists brings up a few familiar names, including thriller writer Faye Kellerman, fantasy author Caitlin Kittredge, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Yes, those are all from the Ks.  Larry King was in there too.  Now, I don’t know if St. Martin’s approached Wong, or if it was the other way around, but they clearly saw fit to give him a chance.  Not only did they give him a chance, they gave John Dies at the End A-list treatment, at least as far as publication standards.  I haven’t heard any particular hype attached to the book, but there’s only so much we can ask.  Regardless, in my admittedly short time in the industry, I have never seen anything like this.  It may not be unprecedented, but it’s certainly rare.  And it all began online.

For the past several years, there has been constant discussion regarding the value of the internet for the publication and promotion of creative work.  Many have tried to do what David Wong accomplished.  Most have failed, and a few have taken this as an indicator that the advent of internet culture has done little to impact the publication industry.  The impressive journey of John Dies at the End; from humble internet serial, to small press paperback, to legitimate, money-making hardcover; is proof that the web is the creative and promotional tool we always hoped it would be.  As a writer, you can use it to bring your work to audiences you could never have dreamed of without it.  That is, if you use it right.  David Wong did, and he’s got the fancy book to prove it.

Addendum: With all that talk about what John Dies at the End has accomplished, I’ve failed to say anything about the book itself.  I haven’t read beyond the first chapter yet, but what I have read so far is excellent.  The prose is razor sharp, and the narrative is darkly witty.  It is as disturbing as it is hilarious.  From first impressions, I can definitely recommend this book.

John Dies at the End at mcnallyrobinson.com

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September 30, 2009 Posted by | Books, Fiction, Ramble, Technology | , , , , , | Leave a comment