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.

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

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


Mason has built an altruistic element into his work. Publerati contributes a portion of each sale to encourage global literacy. He has teamed with the Worldreader Organization, which provides e-readers to children and teachers in Africa.

One of Publerati's writers, Susan Sterling, is a recent convert to ebooks. Publerati published her novel, "Dancing in the Kitchen."

Sterling is one of those college professors with a novel in the drawer whom Mason is so keen on recruiting. She began writing her manuscript in 1990, and although there were many years she did not work on the book at all, she never quite put it aside.

"Before I met Caleb, I had, in a desultory way, looked for an agent and received some encouraging rejections from other agents, who inevitably referred to the current publishing situation and the difficulty they were having placing new fiction," Sterling wrote in an email. "A writer friend told me I should contact at least 100 agents, but fortunately, Publerati came along before I'd gone too far down that path."

Set in fictional Three Rivers, which is modeled on her hometown of Waterville, Sterling's novel explores a family's secrets after the unexpected death of the father. It is a contemporary novel that's set in Maine, New Hampshire and the Midlands of England.

Sterling, who taught English at Colby College, admits being somewhat skeptical of ebooks at first, and hopes to see "Dancing in the Kitchen" in print someday. She still hungers for the feel of a printed, bound book.

But after signing with Publerati, she bought an iPad and "realized that both ways take you right into the world of the novel, and if it's a good book, you can get equally involved and lost."

STERLING TELLS an anecdote from this past summer that sealed her faith in ebooks. She was on a panel discussion at a writer's conference, debating print vs. online media.

"Right in the middle of the caucus, one of the writers, a poet whom I didn't know, downloaded my novel onto his Kindle and announced to the group that he loved the opening. It was a perfect demonstration of what we'd been talking about," she wrote.

"The ebook format also invites immediate communication, particularly for readers with tablets. I've had friends send me emails in the middle of the night and from a rock on the edge of a Maine lake. I love that.

"One of my friends said, on getting an email announcement of the novel, that she downloaded it immediately, and, if she'd had to go to a bookstore to buy it, that might have taken a month, and by then she might have lost the piece of paper on which she'd written the title."

Mason also appreciates the printed book – indeed, it's part of his personal and professional legacy. He's interested in ebooks because he believes in them and thinks they have a promising economic future given the declining market for printed books.

But he does not believe printed books will go away, nor does he believe brick-and-mortar bookstores will go away.

We've already seen the decline of the big chains, but local booksellers are hanging on, Mason said. He hopes and expects that they will do more than hang on, and return to earlier time when they were magnets for social discourse. We're seeing that in Portland at Longfellow Books, he noted.

Just as the Book Exchange on Beacon Hill was a hub for the Boston literary community, local booksellers serve an important role as a gathering place for an exchange of ideas, Mason said.

"The independent bookstore will become the social center in town and survive this change," he predicted.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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