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A Novel Approach

Hudson Valley author Daniel Pinkwater has been letting Web readers take a peek at his new book for free—and now is waiting to see how it will affect sales

By Rick Marshall

 

At a time when many creators seem to be spending as much time blocking their products from showing up early on the Internet as they do creating new work, children’s-book author (and frequent National Public Radio guest) Daniel Pinkwater has been doing the unthinkable: willingly turning over his new novel, beginning well before it was published, to the online audience at no charge.

“I just couldn’t wait a year to find out what people think of this book—I wanted them to start reading it now,” says Pinkwater of his decision to begin posting the unedited manuscript of The Neddiad, his just-published novel, on his Web site, www.pink water.com, nearly a year before its print release date.

When the first chapter went online in August 2006, The Neddiad’s tale of a young boy crossing the country with a host of quirky companions created an Internet phenomenon of sorts, with many identifying Pinkwater as one of—if not the only—author to present a version of his work online at no charge after securing a publishing deal. Nearly a year later, the adventures of the Neddiad’s young hero, Neddie Wentworthstein, are nearing the halfway point on Pinkwater’s homepage, while the fully-edited-and-refined print version of The Neddiad hit bookstore shelves on April 23. Pinkwater has promised to continue releasing the rest of the manuscript online at no charge, one chapter each week, until Neddie’s adventures conclude.

According to Pinkwater, The Neddiad represents the best of his long list of published novels—in fact, he believes that it’s his best work since his first book, Lizard Music. It was this quality that prompted him to venture from the standard marketing strategies and, in a moment of inspiration, ask publisher Houghton Mifflin if he could try to drum up attention for the book by posting the manuscript online, unedited and in the same form he turned it in.

“I didn’t really want it to get missed,” says Pinkwater of spur-of-the-moment request. “Most books have a very short window to get noticed—maybe a week, maybe less. Maybe if there isn’t any review, there is no window at all.”

Pinkwater says he was pleasantly surprised by the “extremely, extremely nice” response from the publisher. However, he made sure to have the first chapter posted as soon as he received approval to do so, in order to avoid any opportunity to reconsider.

“People have been crediting me with all kinds of viral marketing strategy and being smarter than I am,” laughs Pinkwater of the attention he’s received lately. “I’ve been getting invited to speak in prestigious venues and people are treating me like a good writer —which might be their mistake, I don’t know.”

The book has been on sale now for less than two weeks, so the jury is still out on whether this grand experiment was a success. If nothing else, it has been a learning experience for everyone involved —including the readers.

“What I like so much about this presentation of The Neddiad is the mixture of text, images, oral storytelling, and—most of all—this forum, which is as close to the sort of exchanges that might occur if we readers were all sitting with the author in the flesh as he read/told us his story,” wrote one member of The Neddiad’s online forum in a message thread devoted to one of the chapters. “Very, very cool indeed!”

For Pinkwater, the back-and-forth communication fostered by posting The Neddiad online has been one of his favorite outcomes of the endeavor thus far. And while adults—including Pinkwater himself—have become the most active participants on The Neddiad’s message boards, the forum has also played host to discussion among many of the book’s intended young readers.

“The initial posts were all from people who were around 14—and very impressive they were,” says Pinkwater.

In addition to providing a forum for chapter-by-chapter discussion of the book, the decision to post The Neddiad manuscript online has opened the door for some new opportunities—and amplified some old frustrations.

In December, Pinkwater offered up a holiday bonus for readers by recording himself reading the chapter released that week and posting the audio file online for readers to download. The recording was so well received on the forums that it prompted Pinkwater to agree to do a full audio version of the book.

But the online experience hasn’t been all roses for Pinkwater. Along with receiving some complaints from readers who felt they were being “teased” by the incremental release of the book, Pinkwater discovered that offering up his unedited manuscript to the online audience has increased many of the little annoyances a writer endures while moving a book from concept to bookstore shelf.

“When you hand someone a manuscript, I don’t care who it is—your sister, your best friend, whatever—they just take out a pencil and start making corrections,” says Pinkwater of the forum posts and emails regularly popping up from readers who point out typos, grammar concerns and such in the online version of The Neddiad.

Despite regular reassurances from Pinkwater that the online version of The Neddiad is an unedited manuscript and that the final print version was subjected to several rounds of editing by professionals many months ago, readers continue to offer up their suggestions for improving the novel.

In the end, though, Pinkwater says he’s well aware of the fleeting nature of Internet fame—and knows that no matter how things go with The Neddiad, he’ll likely need to find another new and different way to let people know about his next book. In the ever-evolving online world, this week’s new marketing strategy tends to be tomorrow’s old news.

“I’m conscious of the fact that we’re in the first five minutes of an information revolution and we don’t really know where it’s going and what it’s going to be,” says Pinkwater. “In general, I’m optimistic about it and I just really want to see what happens.”

marshall138@gmail.com


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