Canadian author Douglas Anthony Cooper had long given up hope for the young-adult novel he wrote four years ago. Called Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help, the book failed to garner a single notice in Canada when it was published and quickly disappeared from sight.
Life went on for Cooper, better known as an avant-garde author of experimental fiction that has been likened to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, his literary hero. But every so often, Cooper said in an interview from his home in Mexico, his girlfriend would scour the Internet in search of news about the orphaned Milrose, "just to cheer me up."
Two weeks ago, both were astonished to discover that the book had vaulted from total obscurity to the top rank of best-selling books on offer in the world's biggest literary marketplace: Amazon.com. Never actually published in the United States but suddenly available as an e-book, Milrose Munce was No. 2 on Amazon's hugely influential sales lists for both children's literature and books for teens.
"A few days ago it finally dethroned Alice in Wonderland and became first in the children's list," Cooper crowed over the phone from Oaxaca. "Then a little bit later it went past Pride and Prejudice to make it to the top of the teens."
The book is still sitting comfortably at the top of both charts, but it's not exactly a bestseller. The reason: Amazon is giving the book away in electronic form. As with virtually every title on the company's lists of "best-selling" e-books, Milrose Munce is free. And the story behind its instant success is a perfect parable for an industry confused and divided about the radical innovations of e-commerce.
As a pioneer of that revolution - his mid-1990s novel, Delirium, was the first-ever to be serialized on the Internet, according to Cooper - the author was delighted with the Web giant's loss-leader marketing strategy. "After four years of a book languishing in obscurity, it's great to have readers," he said. "It's great to have reviews. We have 28 five-star reviews on Amazon. We have nothing but five-star reviews! This kind of thing has never happened to me before. It's great!"
Neither Cooper nor his agent knows exactly why Milrose Munch, among thousands of well-known public-domain books that are available for free from Amazon - including the entire works of his current rivals, Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll - has taken off. "It's one of those peculiar things," Cooper said, attributing the phenomenon to online networks of e-book mavens who are quick to spot and post links to attractive bargains. "This book should not even be there, let alone on the bestseller lists. It's just kind of absurd."
Amazon.com initially listed the Canadian-published book on its U.S. site by mistake, without securing the necessary rights to distribute it in that country. Neither the Internet company nor the book's original publisher, Doubleday Canada, will say who goofed. But once both discovered the error, Milrose Munce disappeared from Amazon's Kindle store and the building wave of downloads abruptly collapsed.
Alarmed, the author flew into a frenzy of phone calls, begging the publisher and retailer to put his book back on "sale." But his victory was Pyrrhic: When it reappeared on Amazon.com a few days later, the book had a $9.99 price, "which was a bit of a disaster," according to Cooper. A few days later, it was $11.99 - "a complete disaster, because there are a lot of people on the Kindle list boycotting any book over $9.99."
Cooper begged both companies to remove the price tag while keeping his book available. "Never in history has it been this difficult to give away your intellectual copyright," he joked. But the effort prevailed, and Milrose Munce is once again riding high. Although the recently listed price has gone as high as $2, one click will deliver it for nothing, according to Cooper. "It's definitely free."
The author recently hired an agent, David Johnston of Toronto, with the hope of striking a legitimate U.S. publishing deal for a print edition of the book. "Hopefully this word of mouth will make it a hit in bookstores as well," Johnston said in an interview. But why would anybody pay for something they can get for free?
"It's an experiment we're in the midst of conducting," Johnston replied.
In this case, "we" includes the entire publishing industry as it plunges into the fierce price war touched off by e-books and marked by a deeper dispute over the basic nature of copyright. With Apple agreeing to let publishers set their own prices at its new e-book store, Amazon continues to drive prices down aggressively. In the meantime, true believers promote "free culture" as the counterintuitive road to riches in the digital age.
As the happy victim of that war's fog, Cooper is keen to try the new route. Even if it never makes a penny, he reasons, the popularity of Milrose Munce will create a (potentially) paying market for upcoming sequels.
"It's nice that at the moment it's outperforming Twilight and Harry Potter," he said. "Whether it will continue to do that I don't know. But if it does, they're going to want more books."