Here’s the secret: It’s actually very easy for an unknown author to land a major publishing contract. You just cold-call a few publishing houses, get your manuscript read, and then work out a mutually beneficial payment. They need pages, you need money. Everyone wins, right?
At least, that’s what happened to me. Back in 2005, I was 22 and had never published anything outside of my college magazine. But when I reached out to a San Francisco-based publishing house with a collection of essays and interviews illustrated by my friend Mike Force, it all clicked into place.
The publisher, Puberty Press immediately offered me a book deal. After just a few months, working with Puberty Press founders Joe and Patrick, plus a team of interns, we pushed out 600+ pages in a softcover Gonzo-style snapshot of America, called Welcome to the Land of Cannibalistic Horses.
Joe and Patrick printed 3,000 copies of my book. They got me interviews and press. They set me up on a coast-to-coast book tour of elaborate parties. By the end of the year Cannibalistic Horses had completely sold out.
The only problem is that Joe and Patrick don’t exist.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of my book, so it’s time to come clean: You can still buy the book on Amazon, but the rest was all a lie. There was no Puberty Press. There was no Joe and Patrick. Mike and I made everything up.
At first it was just an inside joke, a way to have a little more fun with our self-published book. Mike designed some great graphics and logos for Puberty Press, including a half-dozen book covers and summaries to showcase as a sold out backlist on PubertyPress.com.
Back then, a simple HTML website was enough to put Puberty Press right along side most any indie publisher, at least as far as anyone on the Internet was concerned, which is all that matters anyway. Mike and I crafted biographies for Joe and Patrick, Puberty’s two founders, and rehearsed our own stories of how the deal came to be and how busy they were and how much we were indebted to those guys.
We just didn’t want to admit to self-publishing our book with money I had inherited from my grandmother. We knew we needed someone, some publisher, to validate us. And we soon quite happily learned there were many more advantages to having a publisher, even a fake publisher.
We found an army of interns
Posting an intern ad on Craigslist from Joe and Patrick of Puberty Press brought us over 100 applications, all emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org of course. These young kids, all aspiring writers, did just about everything for us: editing, copy editing, researching, fetching coffee, fetching beer, they did it all… For free.
The press loved us
Masquerading as Joe or Patrick from Puberty Press made it easy to get coverage of our book in local media. Our publicity efforts were really no different than if I had reached out myself, as the author, but coming from the publisher gave the inquiries just enough legitimacy to get through. My book was written up in weekly newspapers like The Stranger in Seattle and I was interviewed—as the author— on college radio stations like Los Angeles’s KXLU. They all wanted to know about how I was discovered, how I got published, how it all went down, so I lied and lied and lied.
Then there was the five-city book tour…
“Joe” and “Patrick” made the introductions
I worked my ass off, single-handedly organizing half a dozen crazy parties from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, with bands and piñatas and free drinks and free tattoos, but I couldn’t have done it without Joe and Patrick at Puberty Press.
There is a magical difference between asking for something for yourself and asking for something for someone else, say, your new, young author. They advocated for me. They petitioned for me. They got free shit for me. When I showed up, everyone knew who I was, because they had been talking about me for weeks with Joe or Patrick.
I can’t tell you how many emails or phone calls I answered pretending to be Joe or Patrick. The characters took shape through those interactions: Patrick became the more business-oriented one, while Joe was a radical surfer poet, signing emails sometimes with “Big Hug, Joe.”
People wanted to work with us
In many ways, Puberty Press was real. It had real influence on the press and sponsors for the parties and bookstores and distributors… But, technically speaking, none of it functioned like a publishing house: Did Joe and Patrick pay for printing the book? No. Had they published other books, the ones on the Puberty Press website? No. Would they publish other books in the future? No, at least not likely.
And that’s how things got weird. One day I checked Patrick’s email and found that he had received a couple submissions, unsolicited manuscripts from young writers. One claimed to be “an avid follower” of Puberty Press. Another was our own long-standing intern and editor, a British student named Jackson, who had attached in the email his own newly finished novel “for consideration to be published with Puberty Press.”
Shortly after Jackson submitted his novel to “Patrick,” Jackson and I met for coffee and his novel came up in conversation. I told him that he didn’t need a publisher, that he should just do it himself. Easy for you to say, he said. You’ve been published.
Had I, though?
I wanted to help Jackson. “What if Puberty Press published his book, too?” I thought. I could have done it—after all, everything that Puberty Press claimed to do for its authors, I had done for myself. But that, ultimately, is why I decided to tell Jackson the truth: he could do it all himself.
I told Jackson there was no Joe or Patrick. I told him that we had invented them, and the truth was that every time he emailed Patrick, he was really corresponding with me. I told him that we had fabricated Puberty Press from the very beginning and that the money used to publish the book was mine, inherited when my grandmother passed, and we had spent every last penny of it to print my book.
Jackson stormed off that afternoon. He never replied to any of my emails after that and when I ran into him at a party a few years later, he was still angry. No one likes to be lied to.
But lying is hard to avoid when you invent a publishing company. And despite disgruntlement from a few other interns and sponsors to whom we eventually came clean, at the end of it all, Puberty Press was a success, in a way: We broke even on the book.
Welcome to the Land of Cannibalistic Horses cost us $10 a copy to print, and we sold about half the 3,000 copies for $20 each, giving away the other half to family, friends and everyone who helped us along the way. And that was that. I have two copies here on my bookshelf. And last time I checked, a few copies were still a few available on Amazon.
We never published any other books and I suppose Puberty Press died when the domain name registration expired. It remains now, only in memoriam, as a logo on the spine of the last few copies. Joe and Patrick, however, may still live on.
You see, I also confessed the truth to another intern: David. Needless to say he was annoyed but reacted to the news a little differently. For one thing, he didn’t storm off: the night after I broke the news, he showed up at a book party for Cannibalistic Horses on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, wearing a three-piece suit and fancy shoes.
If Puberty Press was real enough for Mike and me to get something out of it, then it was for David, too, that night. I later overheard him introducing himself to a group of young women as Puberty Press’s “publisher and founder.”