John Edgar Wideman: The New Lulu VIP Literary Genius?

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Award winning American novelist, memoirist and short story author John Edgar Wideman has been a part of the literary publishing establishment since the late 1960’s. He has published books with Harcourt, Henry Holt and he has had a long-running contract with Houghton Mifflin. Those books have brought Wideman two International PEN-Faulkner Awards (1984, Sent for You Yesterday and 1990, Philadelphia Fire), the O. Henry Short Story Award (2000), Rea Short Story Award (1998), and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize (1997).
On March 14th, John Edgar Wideman’s latest book, Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind is published. What is different about this book over many other books by Wideman is that it will be published exclusively by Lulu, one of the most well-known self-publishing services, and will be launched at a series of live readings of Wideman’s book at SoHo House in New York City and at the Edye in Los Angeles on March 21st. The short stories in Briefs will be read by Giancarlo Esposito, Lynn Whitfield, Roger Guenveur Smith and Lorraine Toussaint, who are all prominent film and theatre actors.
Wideman’s decision to self-publish his latest book using Lulu was not a forced move, but a desire by the author to gain more control in the publishing process and connect with his readership in a way he no longer believes he can do publishing through a mainstream publisher.

“I’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time. Lulu seems to represent a very live possibility as the publishing industry mutates. I like the idea of being in charge. I have more control over what happens to my book. And I have more control over whom I reach. I have a very personal distaste for the blockbuster syndrome. The blockbuster syndrome is a feature of our social landscape that has gotten out of hand. Unless you become a blockbuster, your book disappears quickly. It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish.”

From the Lulu Press Release for Briefs.
Wideman says his latest collection of short stories are more ‘microstories’ taking the form of voices who relate the story through eavesdropping and diary entries. The book is already in the running for this year’s O. Henry Short Story Award and the Best African American Fiction for 2010.
Broadly speaking, this is good news for self-publishing and another feather in its cap, just like last week’s profile we did on William P. Young’s The Shack, but fellow Lulu authors (myself included) who might be quick to trump the line ‘Hell, yeh, I’m published by the same publisher as John Edgar Wideman’ might pause for a little reflection before they go dancing on the streets. This is the first release for Lulu by an author using their VIP service, specifically set up to attract established authors like Wideman. As the Animal Farm Literary Adage might go:

All authors are equal, just some are more equal than others!

If you think Lulu see all their authors in the same light; think again. This is akin to DellArte Press authors (Harlequin’s self-publishing service) thinking they are operating in the same field of publishing dreams as all of Harlequin’s traditionally contracted authors. The Lulu VIP program offer everything to try and lure an established author to the lulu brand, every turn of the drive shaft and spark from the Lulu engine—pre-production and post-publication—is being directed towards the sale of the author’s book. It is notable that the press release to go with the book was not released by Wideman, but Lulu themselves. While Lulu right now needs Wideman more than he needs them, there is no doubt in my mind; the experimental nature of Wideman’s Briefs made it a difficult sell to Houghton Mifflin, and as the author freely points out, he is no writer of literary blockbusters.
John Edgar Wideman was a former recipient of a MacArthur genius grant; with an established literary reputation and free of the confines mainstream publishing can bring—we may be about to see the real literary genius of John Edgar Wideman…
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