November 25, 2012

Bob Keyes: How a Charlotte Bronte doorstop inspired one man's digital revolt

Caleb Mason, a book lover in Portland, starts publishing ebooks because they increase readers’ access.

Caleb Mason has a theory: College professors all over New England – all over the country, for that matter – have manuscripts tucked away in their desk drawers that they haven't touched in years, maybe decades.

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Caleb Mason has published six novels through his Portland-based Publerati.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

LEARN MORE: publerati.com

"I'm interested in books that are startlingly different," said Mason, founder and publisher of the Portland-based Publerati, an electronic book publishing company. "That is just the kind of fiction I'm looking for, and the only kind of fiction I am going to publish."

Mason, who lives on Munjoy Hill, began the company in June and has published six novels so far with another four under contract. His latest coup is landing Ellen Cooney, an author who has been published by Random House and the New Yorker magazine, among others. Publerati will publish her next novel, "Thanksgiving."

Mason expects the presence of Cooney on his roster of published authors will increase visibility for Publerati as well as its credibility. His goal is to publish 10 to 12 books a year.

As an ebook publisher, Mason publishes only electronically, and only works of fiction that capture his interest. He receives about 25 manuscripts each week. Publerati books are available on the popular platforms, including Kindle, Nook and iPad.

Mason, who turns 57 next month, is uniquely qualified for this business venture. He has worked in the book retail trade, the publishing business and the technology sector.

Just as technological advancements in photography and mapping have changed how we experience the world around us, Mason believes that ebooks will increase readership through easy and affordable access: His books are priced at less than $5. He calls the digital revolution "the main event of our lifetime."

FOR MASON, the light-bulb moment occurred two years ago. He was traveling on a plane with the Charlotte Bronte novel "Jane Eyre" in hand. He had just seen the movie, and was interested in re-reading the novel, so he packed it to travel.

Seated on the plane, Mason struggled to stuff the bound volume in the pocket of the seat in front of him. Meanwhile, a woman next to him was conveniently reading an ebook.

Mason was frustrated. The woman was amused. They shared a laugh over their contrasting experiences.

"It was, 'Oh, my god, I've got to figure out how to do something about this,' " he said.

With his background in publishing and technology, Caleb felt comfortable navigating the world of electronic books.

An English major at Tufts University in Boston, Mason began his career at the Book Exchange on Charles Street on Beacon Hill. It was a retail job, and he learned the tactile joy of books. He loved handling them, enjoyed talking about them and appreciated the relationships readers and writers forged with the printed volume.

That led to work at the then-Boston-based publisher Little, Brown, where Mason worked first in marketing and later in editorial. When he left Little, Brown in 1984, he and a small group of colleagues began Salem House Publishers, which they built from nothing.

But his experience at Salem House left a bitter taste. The company merged with HarperCollins, and Mason was out of a job. He moved to Maine and began working in technology. He worked at Konica, where he was involved in the early stages of digital photography, and at DeLorme, where he immersed himself in consumer software.

THESE DAYS, MASON has a day job that pays the bills. Publerati is still in its infant stages. Mason has high hopes for his company, but he's not making his living with it.

Yet.

"I want it to become a viable company for me and for others," he said. "And I think it can be."

(Continued on page 2)

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