At a time when most authors, and even editors, are still trying to get a handle on this whole digital publishing thing, simply publishing ebooks is already a thing of the past for writer Miracle Jones.
Jones is the author of the novels Rocks at the Cuts, Sharing, and Shifting, as well as the short story collections Seed, Soil, and the just-released Common Fantasies for Strong People. If he has been flying under your radar, that’s not entirely by accident. A fifth-generation Texan, Jones is unrelentingly hard-working and also unrelentingly uncomfortable discussing all of this hard work.
Here are some facts about Miracle Jones that he might not tell you:
A video he made for his short story “How to Get Laid For Zero Dollars and Zero Cents,” has over 30,000 views on YouTube, and the video for his story “My Summer Vacation” was featured at Wired as one of the first examples of “text-to-movies” technology. His short stories and novels have been published online, as ebooks, and as “digital sculptures”—USB drives containing text and recordings of his work that he embedded in rubber genitals and figurines of Don Quixote. He is the editor and founding member of the literary journal and performance group Fiction Circus, co-producer of the monthly reading series and variety show Derangement of the Senses, and an editor of the online literary and arts journal Timeghost. Last year he created a “litvideos” subreddit after realizing there was no “Literature” category on YouTube, and he can often be found recording readings and storytelling shows around New York to add to his online archive. In keeping with the rapidly-evolving publishing landscape, he’s managed to do all of this through publishing his work himself and his efforts have been chronicled everywhere from the New York Times and the New York Observer, to Galleycat and the Atlantic Wire.
I had the pleasure of talking to Jones about all of his various endeavors and how he envisions the future of digital publishing.
The Rumpus: The Austin Chronicle interviewed you about publishing your short story collections Seed and Soil as USB drives embedded in rubber genitals, and none of your books are available in print. Why is it important to you to keep publishing your work in creative new formats? Do you think print publishing is on its way to becoming a thing of the past?
Miracle Jones: It is a good time, putting out stories in rubber genitals! If some dapper German with leather Keds and “suspension” scars offers to publish your short story collection inside rubber genitals, trust me: do the deal!
Otherwise, publishing a short story collection is a colossal exercise in struggle, frustration, failure, and anomie. This is true for anyone, I think, whether your collection is commercially successful or not. If every single person in publishing is going to be dull, full of bad ambitions, and harboring strange resentments against all the other Harvard grads who got good jobs, then you have to try to have fun on your own, in spite of them. I also don’t know of any other way to sell an object that contains every single possible version of an ebook, in addition to multiple covers, videos, and audio recordings. You can always take the flash drive down to a POD printer and get yourself a print edition, if you feel that you need one.
Plus, it is much more thrilling to sell weird USB dongs on the street than grimy paperbacks. I sold out of all my dildos and rubber vaginas pretty quickly, and nobody ever asked for their money back. Though, if I must be perfectly honest, there was a virus scare once. Evidently, one of my copies of Seed had a marker virus installed on it, and so one of my customers got infected with this digital STD while installing my book. He wasn’t mad, though. That’s the best part: the type of person who is willing to buy a short story collection embedded in a green, digital three-inch penis sculpture (or terrifying vagina sandworm!) is exactly the sort of person I want as my reader.
I don’t know what is going to happen to print publishing. People in publishing take publishing very seriously, probably because in order to get their jobs, they had to kill a lot of good, creative people who did not take publishing very seriously.
No one can pirate my rubber genital flash drives, by the way. Not yet. You either have one or you don’t. However, does digital media plus 3-D printing equal THE GLORIOUS FUTURE OF INFORMATION? Probably. Or maybe my new short story collection points the way forward!
Rumpus: The stories in your new collection Common Fantasies for Strong People allow for comments on individual paragraphs of every story. What do you think the advantages are of enabling readers to comment on discrete pieces of a work, as opposed to the whole thing?
Jones: There is no other edition of this book. There isn’t an ebook edition or a print edition. So you are reading this book at the same time as everyone else, and also, you can see where other people have been and what they thought about while they were there. It is a communal reading experience, but does not have the feel of somebody reading over your shoulder.
You are the new pope! There is only one copy of this book and it is at the secret porn library in the Vatican. So you have to deal with the margin notes of all the other popes.
In addition to writing code that allows people to comment on every paragraph, I also wrote code that lets you see where the comments are—and at what density!—by highlighting the paragraphs with ever-darkening hues of pink. This means that when you leave a comment, you are basically peeing on a lamppost and so now other dogs can come smell your pee and find out what interesting diseases you might have. Also, did I mention that interacting with this book is utterly free of charge, also like peeing on a lamppost?
Rumpus: Do you ever get anxious about inviting this kind of micro-level criticism of your stories?
Jones: I don’t mind it. It seems natural. I like the idea of my book being a destination website for like-minded weirdos.
Also, since I don’t have an editor or anything, this will help me catch typos, discover which parts of my stories resonate with people, and discover which ideas spur wild tangential thought, so that I can further explore them in future work. Also, if some jerk has a particularly keen editorial insight that sticks with me and I end up lying there in the dead of night, staring at the ceiling and joggling my feet, then I will probably take their advice and change the story so that I can live my life.
Not being able to attract an editor becomes my greatest strength instead of my greatest weakness: THE WORLD IS MY EDITOR. I am but an insignificant fabulist: imagine how cool it would be if you could communicate with Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, or Ursula LeGuin in this fashion? You would probably pay good money to be able to leave a comment on the one existing digital copy of a book for all the world—including the author!—to see.
One of the first giant message boards, for instance, was the message board for Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, a book of connected short stories by the amazing Spider Robinson. Some books lend themselves to eternal conversation in the margins.
Rumpus: What do you think the next innovation in format will be, following ebooks?
Jones: I think the future of publishing is a mere change in metaphor from books as “commodity” to books as “location.” Having “electronic rights” will not mean being able to put out a single, boring text file for “download.” Electronic rights will mean property rights: you will host the one copy of the text that everyone visits and with which everyone interacts. Pirating books will become as silly as pirating houses or food. That’s why celebrity chefs are being pushed so hard as the new “rock stars”: elaborately-prepared meals are the very last art that can’t be copied.
Rumpus: Your literary journal and performance group Fiction Circus has spearheaded fights against Amazon and Google that have helped lead to effective change. In one case, an interview you recorded with Professor James Grimmelmann of New York Law School about the Google Books settlement was widely circulated and encouraged several authors to sign a petition protesting the deal. Do you ever get nervous about the repercussions of going up against such powerful Goliaths?
Jones: Nah. The individuals at these massive corporations are not insidious and evil, so when they are instructed to do insidious and evil things, they merely do their jobs poorly, letting the furious masses defeat them in short order so that the coders at these companies can get back to indexing bean salad recipes. Google and Amazon want to be defeated. It is basic S&M.
Writing code is an art form, and this might be the first time in human history that the Global Corporate Powers of Darkness are therefore dependent on artists to get their evil done, instead of on soldiers, scientists, engineers, and politicians. Because of this fact, the world is rapidly becoming a very strange place and I very much enjoy living in it.
Rumpus: If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the modern publishing model what would it be?
Jones: I would distribute it globally instead of locking it up in five New York wizard towers. No one should ever have to “go” to their publishing job. You should be able to have a job in publishing (a job which pays no money!), and not have to live in the most expensive city in the U.S. This creates a situation where only the strongest in publishing survive. In NYC, this means “the richest.” Not the smartest, not the bravest, not the most creative. It makes sense that Hollywood has to be centrally located: you all have to be in the same place at the same time to get a movie made. It does not make any sense that American publishing happens because of a series of tense lunches. This situation is why the world of books does not reflect the preoccupations of anybody but the most hateful East Coast swells and dandies.
Rumpus: Are there any contemporary writers who you think are publishing their work in particularly interesting or inventive ways?
Jones: William Gibson once published a poem called “Agrippa (a book of the dead)” that disappeared as you were reading it. It came on a floppy disk. It encrypted itself as you read it, instantly disappearing from your hard drive. The print edition was treated with photosensitive chemicals, meaning that it started fading away as soon as it was exposed to light. That, my friends, is electronic publishing.
Rumpus: Last year you created a subreddit for “Litvideos” after realizing there is no “Literature” category on YouTube. What do you think the value is of having a designated place to post things like book trailers, author interviews, and videos of readings? Given the insane number of videos on YouTube, why do you think they have yet to create one?
Jones: Because no one rich or important has ever asked them to do so! I can complain all day long, in forum and in verse, but it would probably only take one half hour phone call from an executive at Random House, and Google would get right on that. It would take Google merely another half an hour to implement this new category. They would just copy and paste some code and repopulate some data tables. I guess they have to come up with a “Literature” category icon, which might take another half hour. Probably it would be a quill pen hovering over a piece of paper, though I would argue that it should be Mr. Poe’s raven, Mr. Melville’s whale, or Ms. Plath’s oven.
Movie trailers work because they come before actual movies and everybody expects them to be there. A good clearinghouse for all literature videos ought to contain about seventy-five percent free, fun, new content and then twenty-five percent promotional materials for things that you can buy. I don’t understand why this doesn’t exist already, or why big publishers aren’t posting stuff to Litvideos every day. It is reddit. Anybody can put anything in the Litvideos subreddit: whether a recording from a poetry slam at some dive bar in Chicago, a book trailer for a new novel by a major house, or a new interview with Bill Cheng, Leigh Stein, Mary Miller, or some other brand new novelist with a unique voice who needs exposure. This is MTV for books. No broadcast corporation or tech company is going to do this for us. The literary community has to take matters into its own hands. If I were a publicist at a publishing house, I would be thrilled that there was a place to put videos related to the books I was trying to sell. Maybe they are afraid of democracy.
Rumpus: You’ve said that people often assume the fictional parts of your stories are true, and the parts based on scientific fact are fictional. Why do you think this is, and what role does technology play in your stories?
Jones: Hard to say. I don’t really write science fiction, though I tell people that’s what I write. I think that New Yorkers have a hard time parsing the time-honored tradition of Texas bullshit. For me, technology takes the same role in stories that magic used to take in fairy tales: an easy way to cheat on narrative and take your reader some place new without working very hard.
Rumpus: You’re originally from Texas. While you first came to New York a few years ago, you’ve gone back to live in Austin a few times since then. What originally drew you to New York, and what keeps pulling you back to Texas?
Jones: I love Texas. I am a Texan in every way, for good and evil. It is somewhat arbitrary that “all of American publishing” comes from New York City, but it does, and if you want to help change the system, you have to do it from inside this helltown where it costs twelve dollars for a bad hamburger. I stay until I cannot stand it anymore, and then I escape back to where I feel comfortable and where people do not look at my shoes before they look at my face. I do love a lot of people here in New York, though, even as I hate the consecration of every fucking thing here to avarice and striving. My feelings on this topic, and this town, are complex.
Rumpus: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to get their work out there, but doesn’t have an MFA or any publishing connections?
Jones: If they are young enough, they will not even know that you need to get an MFA or have publishing connections in order to get work out there. They will assume that literature is a meritocracy. Upon learning how many books get published merely because of academic or industry connections, they will become royally pissed and start to feel like there is no hope for them in this sad and fallen world. However, my advice would be to find some friends, start a reading series, record it, and get your stories out there the old-fashioned way. Buy every Jay-Z and Wu-Tang Clan album. Listen to them critically. Take notes. Pretend you are a drug dealer and the drug that you will sell are the hallucinations that you yourself produce.
Rumpus: You helped produce readings with Fiction Circus that doubled as a seance for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a speed dating event, and a dance party. Derangement of the Senses, the monthly reading series you currently produce with Kevin Carter, includes house musicians and everything from storytellers to burlesque dancers. What do you think the advantage is of including so many different elements in your shows? Do you ever worry that they’ll distract from the more traditional poets and fiction readers?
Jones: I think good poets and good fiction readers have the potential to be as entertaining as any other performer. Without interacting with an audience, you will never realize how great the gap is between what you want your words to achieve, and the actual effect they have on people.
If I may just say one thing, working with Kevin Carter, Jason Laney, Tami Shann, Anton Solomonik, and Jeanne Thornton at Derangement and Fiction Circus over the years is an utter delight. They are the finest, nicest people. All they want is to do a good show, and they treat the performers that they book extremely well. I think it is their selfless commitment to doing good work that ensures that every performer has a chance to shine. I doubt this can be replicated. In fact, I know it can’t be.