Mendicant Bookworks And The Rebirth Of The Short Story

How a small, US-based publisher is bucking the commercial trend, selling gritty masterpieces for 99 cents a pop.
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How a small, US-based publisher is bucking the commercial trend, selling gritty masterpieces for 99 cents a pop.

“I don’t think much of the publishing industry,” says Ed’s email. “But to be fair, it probably doesn’t think much of me. So I guess we’re even.”

I can almost hear the accompanying cackle as the words ping into my inbox from across the Atlantic. Ed Kauffman is the man behind Mendicant Bookworks, US-based publishers of short story e-books; sublime drops of hard-boiled beauty that you can have, hold and love for the laughably low price of 99 cents a throw. For British readers, this of course means that effectively the story is free because American money, as we all know, isn’t actually real. And if it’s on the Internet it’s even less real.

These stories by contrast, are as real as fiction gets, bruised and beautiful tales of ordinary heroes coping under sometimes-extraordinary conditions. Mendicant published their first 5 stories in July 2011. Since then, they've put out another 5, with 2 more in the works.

“I sample as much small press stuff as I can afford,” writes Ed, “and I'm drawn to books full of miscreants, fiends, drunks, the delusional, and unambitious, and beaten down, and the misunderstood.”

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Here was a sentiment that I could wholeheartedly align myself with. I’ll read virtually anything in any genre, but the common cast throughout tends to be the latterly named failures, freaks and fuck-ups. On occasion, I have tried to stay away from the grubby side of the bookshelf and widen my parameters in a vain bid for self-improvement. I recently picked up one of the Booker nominations, and it was all very good and prettily stitched together and such-like, but there was no heft, no pull, no deep primeval stirring of the guts. I had to give up halfway through. It was like force-feeding myself a box of Turkish Delight. Medicant Bookworks are more my type of nourishment.

Prior to starting up Mendicant Bookworks, Ed had been the editor of the GGP Reader, a collection of poems that formed part of the Guerrilla Poetics Project; an Internet based collective who vowed to “return poetry to the people by subversively putting it in their hands.” This meant sending out operatives into libraries and bookshops to slip beautifully detailed broadsides into targeted books, which has always struck me as a cracking idea. Kind of like Lee Marvin in Emperor Of The North Pole, the classic American hobo leaping on board a hurtling steam engine and hiding in a boxcar, waiting to spring out and sing a song to an unsuspecting guard. Despite not being part of the project’s inner circle, Ed was knocked out by the range and quality of the material unearthed. After GPP Reader, Ed decided to build a home for all the hobos he had encountered along the way. Having no book making skills, Ed decided to shoot everything into cyber space. The result was a halfway publishing house of sanity in an industry that finds itself increasingly pushed, squeezed and compromised.

Ed: “A kind of madness has taken root. Profit margins and bottom lines have supplanted the simple humanity behind the words, and the intriguing people who made the books. Far more important than publishing a truly unique book is packing the shelves with tripe from B-List celebrities, and other cannibals. Short fiction is either ignored or whipped like a mangy, tethered dog. And there's just no reason for it. There's no reason why eBooks can't be an affordable avenue to sample new writers before committing to an $8 book, a $10 book, a $15 book. Unfortunately people are suspicious if you only charge 99 cents for a story. "Must not be worth it," they seem to think. Madness.

This, of course, all makes utter common sense; short stories are the equivalent of singles off iTunes. Why major publishing houses don’t publish more short story collections by new writers is a mystery I’ve had explained a few times, but still remains beyond my ken. But as Ed demonstrates, if your ambitions are driven more by love of words and stories than the love of money then it can be done.

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“I pay the artist a flat fee and the writers get a modest advance. After breaking even, I profit-share 50/50 with the writer. That's really the aim. Pay our people a little something and publish stories we believe in, and hopefully we break even. Or, hell, maybe even make a little beer money. We rely almost exclusively on social media, word-of-mouth, and author hustle for promotion...and that is often a slow, and steady process.”

Slow and steady, yes, but the watchwords here are love, care and attention to quality. And when you’re working most waking hours and trying to make a paycheck stretch across the month, publishing fiction can take a long time. Real life often gets in the way.

“I'm drawn to characters lost in their confusion and sussing out their self-destruction,” Ed tells me. “I prefer the kinds of things that can actually happen to most people. Fucking explosions, and car chases, and murder plots are pap -- and if you're life is routinely filled with them, then a change of career is a must. I'm drawn to an unheralded kind of hero. The layabout. The wanderer. The mechanic, or failed artist, or lovelorn chump lost in middle management. People who don't catch too many breaks, and just keep slugging through anyway. The character who gets up and goes to a job he or she can't stand, does thankless work, and does it better than anyone else for no other reason than doing it. There's a grace in that simple struggle that means more to me than the more pedestrian concerns of commercial fiction.”

So far Mendicant Bookworks have published Joseph Ridgwell, Christopher Cunningham, Doug Draime, Alan Catlin, J.A. Tyler, Mark SaFranko, Ben Tanzer, Hosho McCreesh, Me, William Taylor, Jr., with stories in the works from Bob Pajich, and Gerald Locklin. These are all accomplished writers in their own right, but only a few of them are known beyond the small press. If you've got a 20min train ride everyday, or a free lunch hour, why not take a look and try a story?

If you enjoyed this, visit Mendicant Bookwork's website to find out more.