Thursday, April 18, 2013

The First Step is a Doozy

David Wong is something of a hero of mine. I should point out that David Wong doesn’t exist. Well, that’s not quite right. Wong is one of the most common surnames on the planet, so it is very likely that David Wongs exist – but the one about whom I’m writing doesn’t. Jason Pargin, editor at, does exist, however, and “David Wong” is the pseudonym under which he authored John Dies at the End a little over a decade ago. He explains posting the novel on the internet thus:

“I posted it under a fake name – my family, friends, and coworkers didn’t know I had written it, since asking a loved one to read your unfinished manuscript is considered a form of assault in Illinois…Then I would give the finished product away online, for free, while I worked for $8 an hour doing data entry in a cubicle.”

There things stood until 2006 when he employed one of those print-on-demand houses for a paperback version whereby “a few thousand copies of John Dies at the End were unleashed on the world.” One of those paperbacks fell into the hands of Don Coscarelli, writer/director of off-beat horror films including Phantasm and Bubba-Hotep. He contacted Dave/Jason (not without difficulty), and the movie John Dies at the End hit theaters in 2012. The novel and its sequel This Book is Full of Spiders – Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It now have a traditional publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, and are selling well.

I like the book and the movie, which are funny in a way reminiscent of Douglas Adams. The concept: a street drug called soy sauce alters the mind in a way that opens a psychic door to another dimension where dreadful things reside and want to come through. Think HP Lovecraft on laughing gas. What I like even more, though, is that Wong/Pargin succeeded against all odds with his nontraditional publishing methods. (It’s tempting me to post a novel presently available in a dead tree version – a few dozen short stories are online at

Those odds are huge. The six major traditional publishing houses in New York each receive an average of 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts per month while publishing only a few hundred new titles (most by established authors) per year. 81% of Americans say they want to write a book. (I suspect most want to have written a book, which is not the same thing.) Only a tiny fraction ever do, but in a nation of 314,000,000 people, that still means millions of manuscripts are gathering dust in drawers – or, nowadays, occupying bytes on a flash drive. Nor is the potential readership as large as one might think – it is, in fact, smaller than the pool of wannabe authors. The New York Times reports that Americans on average read 4 books per year, but this is misleading – and not just because one person who reads 24 and five people who read 0 average 4. It includes books read as required assignments for school or work. If you look just at recreational reading the figures are even more dismal. From the Jenkins Group publishers:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies.
A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies.

The recreational reading market nonetheless remains big enough. Now, at last, there are ways to reach it without a traditional publisher: online and for free, or print on demand, the way David Wong did. There’s generally no money in that, true enough, but the truth is that for most writers there is no money in it anyway. As in music or the other arts, a handful of performers make fortunes, but nearly all the rest are out-of-pocket. David, though, shows it is possible. Step One: write a first-rate book. Yes, I know: that’s a very very tall step.


  1. Yours is the second review of this movie that I've read. And I'm intrigued now. I'll need to check it out, even if the ending is spoiled. ;)

    Those stats about reading are pretty sad and little surprising. But I do know a few people who lament that they have no time to read anymore. I suspect watching reality TV takes up most of the spare time.

    1. The trailer (perhaps by design) doesn't quite catch the odd humor of the film (and book) that is much of the appeal. It is less out-and-out silliness than an evocation of the response, "No, the universe really can't be like that," along with the unsettling thought that maybe it is.