"No one would argue with the fact that legacy publishing is depressed or that a new paradigm is urgently required."
So says new publisher Atavist books, which claims to have something different to offer:
"Atavist Books breaks the mold in countless ways, with its partnership with Atavist, a digital-first model, more resources for digital marketing, and a full three months of promotion for every title."
That poor old mold must be well and truly wrecked by now, so many start-up publishers have had a bash at it in recent years. And is legacy publishing really depressed? Is there even such a thing as "legacy publishing" outside the declarations of those who want to use it as a straw man? If new operators really want to be original, they could start by refusing to bang on about "new paradigms" and forget this tired oppositional marketing.
On the subject of marketing, meanwhile, a fair amount of what you need to know about Atavist's revolutionary digital-selling techniques can be gleaned from browsing the website it has set up for its first release, Karen Russell's Sleep Donation. The website a dispiriting done-before mish-mash of dull meaningless video, dull meaningless questionnaire, dull fake news reports and yawnsome plot points. I imagine it will persuade no one to buy the book.
All of which is a pity, because once you break through the hubris and flim-flam surrounding Atavist's launch it becomes clear that it is a serious operation selling those wonderful old-fashioned things: good books. It has got Gary Younge and Hari Kunzru slated for future releases, while anyone who's read Swamplandia will already know that Karen Russell is also a proper talent. The New York Times's famously waspish Michiko Kakutani described this novella (the first digital-only book to be reviewed in the New York Times) as "testament to [Russell's] fertile powers of imagination", and it has had raves across America. The Boston Globe says the book "glows with eerie-fine phrases". The LA Times call it a "digital dream."
This praise is all the more impressive given that almost every reviewer has acknowledged that the premise of the book is – as Kakutani put it – "preposterous". A woman called Trish describes a plague of insomnia sweeping across America. More and more people are unable to sleep – at all. Trish's sister Dori was one of the first victims. Dori's problem became so bad that "she became, quite suddenly, impossible to anesthetise. We learned this when she broke her leg in college and surgeons were forced to operate on a fully conscious Dori." Eventually, after going 21 days without a wink of sleep, Dori died. So too did many other victims – "'orexins', the media taught us to call them".
Trish is now working as an evangelist for the Sleep Corps, an organisation that appears to offer salvation. She encourages healthy people to give sleep donations. Vans travel around neighbourhoods, in the style of mobile bloodbanks, catching Zzzz's from people who haven't yet caught the insomnia disease. There is such a desperate need for these transfusions that it has even become legal to take sleep from babies. One child in particular, known to the world as Baby A, provides such good quality, trouble-free sleep that it has passed into legend. Scientists are desperately trying to create a synthetic version. At the other extreme, an adult sleeper, "Donor Y" has passed on a nightmare so terrible that people who have had it transfused into them are taking amphetamines and "they latch their eyes open, a Clockwork Orange self torture".
Step back from this story and it seems absurd. But Russell's gift is to provide deep immersion in the details, and in Trish's haunting, urgent emotions. It's easy to ignore the wider picture in favour of a series of wonderful moments. People report dreams about "President Nixon strapped to a fire truck!" Trish tells us that when her sister died she inherited her unused make-up and became "the heiress to all the unused crazycolours in her eye shadow three-packs, you know, the freak blue Maybelline smuggles inbetween the taupe and the grey". Best of all is a terrific, gothic description of a Night World (also known as an "Eye-sore"), an old fairground where hundreds of people have gathered to drink heavily, to take sleeping draughts and lie down in poppy fields if they are insomniacs, or to blast themselves with stimulants if they have been infected with the Donor Y nightmare.
Swirling around this rich imaginative world are sinister hints of conspiracy and exploitation. Is the Sleep Corps really benevolent? What are we to make about the hints of funny money, leaks, rogue products in the far east? Where does the original problem come from? Will the donations harm Baby A?
Russell offsets this expertly-induced unease with humour and wry social commentary. "America's greatest talent," says Trish, "is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine." Insomnia starts to stand in for our attention-deficit society. Further sharp satirical blows land on charitable hucksterism, commercial healthcare and the capitalisation of suffering. It isn't always subtle. By the time Trish is lecturing on mining shale gas and environmental exploitation it even starts to feel finger-waggy, but that's a small price to pay for such enjoyable and effectively-realised speculative fiction.
Atavist promises to release one title a month. If it focuses on keeping standards this high, it won't need any new publishing paradigm. Readers will just seek the books out.