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Have You Found The Fabulist?

by Andrew Johnston 2 months ago in literature

Six years ago, I sent a book into the world to get some character. Now I want it back.

Six years ago, I inadvertently sent a novel overseas, but it was only because I was trying to get it published.

It's not that complicated, I assure you - it does get a little messy, though, and I'm going to be asking you for your help a little for now. For now, just know that this is a story of desperation and misdirected creativity that went a little farther (literally) than I'd imagined.

It starts with a manuscript for a novel. I write them, you see.

Probably too many of them given the lack of interest, but everyone is allowed a hobby. Over the past eight years, I've tried to shop some of these around to agents, tried to sell others on my own, and there's certainly a story in each - but I'd like to call attention to the one in the middle.

The Fabulist started its life in 2014 as a serial on the now-defunct website JukePop Serials. The idea was to create something rare in the world of speculative fiction - a post-apocalyptic story that does not focus on or glamorize violence. The story's nameless protagonist is a devout pacifist, solving his problems through wit and diplomacy, and while he is a victim of violence, he never sinks to that level himself. Bloodshed is the enemy of his particular art.

It was a risky move - putting the tale of a pacifistic storyteller in an environment dominated by narratives punctuated by exploding zombie heads. And yet it worked, becoming much more popular on the platform than I ever would have imagined.

The cover of the original serial version of The Fabulist (2014)

On the basis of that success, I rewrote the final work and - very reluctantly - sent it out to agents.

It ended badly. No need to dwell on that further, except to say that it was rejected over 200 times with a request rate of just 3% - that's in contrast to the 10% considered the minimum for a publishable work, and the 25+% I've seen people actually get.

As with any 21st century writer who's been kicked in the teeth by agents a few hundred times, my immediate response was to say "Yeah, well who needs you people, anyway?" and self-publish it.

Now, this was hardly my first walk around that particular block. I'd tried to self-publish several times before. In 2013, I wrote Nerd World, a novel so odd that I figured no agent would ever touch it, and made a really concerted effort to sell it myself - a promotional campaign, book giveaways, free downloads, articles, the works. It didn't exactly launch the book, and I received very few sales or reviews.

This is the side of the industry that you never hear about from the people singing the praises of self-publishing, declaring that the Big 5 are dinosaurs and the future will be a glorious indie paradise. There's more smoke than fire there, and when you see through smoke you can see how it's a losing game. There's just too much competition.

When there are literally hundreds of new novels coming out each week, the only way to succeed is to stand out - but how? Absent being famous already, there aren't any sure methods. Advertising is known to be ineffective, PR is too expensive for most, and I already knew the limits of giveaways.

So I had to get creative, and that's when I discovered Bookcrossing.

Never heard of it? The premise is simple: Take a book you own and register it on the Bookcrossing site, generating a unique numerical code. You put that code somewhere in the book along with the URL and then leave it in a public place. Someone finds the book, goes to the URL and enters the code, marking the book as found. Once he's done with the book, he leaves it somewhere else, and thus the book passes from hand to hand, leaving a digital trail to track its movement.

It's a charming idea, isn't it? I've always had a bit of an obsession with the signs of life left by strangers. Plus, the novel itself was about an itinerant storyteller - how appropriate that the fictional character was about to go on a real world trip!

I put together a special edition of the book - the "Traveler's Edition" - which had two extra printed pages to explain the project. There was a QR code to the Bookcrossing page, a URL for a Facebook page, and some personal contact info for yours truly. There was more, though. I was fascinated by the memory books I'd seen in hostels, in which people anonymously left notes of their travels and lives. In the introduction to the "Traveler's Edition," I encouraged people to leave their mark, and threw in a few extra blank pages to accommodate more messages and doodles. I had always dreamed that the novel would return to me with a few stories of its own.

My project made its debut in August 2015 at a local art walk.

The cover to the most recent version of The Fabulist (2015)

Eventually, the book was picked up. Then it disappeared. No one ever registered it on the Bookcrossing site and only two people interacted with the Facebook page, and that was that.

If you want a takeaway from this, there were certainly a few things I would have done differently if I had to do this again:

  1. I would have printed a lot more books. Bookcrossing books actually have only a very small chance of being picked up, registered and circulated. Many of them are simply kept, either because the finder doesn't understand exactly what to do or just doesn't care. Others are just viewed as discarded property and thrown away. Distributing, say, ten of them might have spoiled that image of the single well-traveled book, but it also would have increased the odds of one of them going into circulation.
  2. I would have spoken directly with people about the project. If a few people knew what was going on, this also would have made it more likely that a stray copy would have been picked up. Handing out a few copies in person would have been nice, but I also could have distributed things like stickers or buttons with imagery from the book and links to relevant information.
  3. I would not have relied so much on the Bookcrossing site. I had a Facebook page - using that as the hub would have been better. The official Bookcrossing site is still live, but it's out of date (no QR support, for example) and none too friendly to new users. More than that, it's now used primarily for what they call "controlled releases" - people giving books (usually recent novels by big-name authors) to each other at designated locations, making it more of an informal library service than anything.

So that was that - a failed marketing attempt that, thankfully, cost me little by way of money or time. It could have ended here, but I didn't let it end. A few years ago, I decided that I wanted my book back, and sent out a call for information on The Fabulist.

There are a few complications. First, it's possible that the book is no longer in the United States. I believe it's in Brazil.

By Pedro Menezes on Unsplash

The hint here was in those two Facebook interactions. One was from a Brazilian student at a nearby university. The second was from someone actually in Brazil. Logical conclusion? The first person found it and took it home. After that, it's anyone's guess where it went.

But that leads me to the second complication, because I'm not in the United States either. I'm in China.

By Nuno Alberto on Unsplash

This would be the messy part I mentioned at the top.

Even after more than six years, I still want my book back. I want to see where it's gone, if it picked up any of the stories that I hoped it would. And I say this knowing that my odds of finding it are very remote - that there's a good chance that it no longer exists at all, or has been so totally lost that it may as well have been destroyed.

Even so, if you've seen a book that looks like the one above, please let me know. I have a form on my website for it and everything. And if you just want to know what this whole The Fabulist thing is about? Well, go to my site and you can read that for free as well.

Happy hunting.

literature
Andrew Johnston
Andrew Johnston
Read next: The Rich Life of Crashing Parties with Jerry Rice and Will Smith
Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at www.findthefabulist.com.

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