Why a man is giving away novels at Northeastern

December 12, 2014
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By Emily Huizenga/Special to the Gazette

There’s a man on the corner, and he wants to give you something. It’s not a Greenpeace pamphlet, and it’s not a pocket-sized New Testament. It’s a multimedia storytelling project: a novel with a corresponding CD and artwork. It’s not political and it’s not religious, but it is—suspiciously—free.

The man on the corner, between Huntington Avenue and Forsyth Street on Northeastern University’s campus on a bright October Wednesday, is Tim Pettus. A writer and aspiring editor, Pettus’ day job is to stake out college campuses and distribute copies of the novel, “The Hope We Seek,” to anyone who pauses long enough to take it.

Pettus didn’t write the book. Rich Shapero—a venture capitalist turned experimental fiction author who lives in California—did. Pettus has never met Shapero, but he does spend upwards of 40 hours a week distributing Shapero’s work. Best case, that’s about 2,000 books per week.

“The job’s good for people who are OK with doing something a little bit weird,” said Pettus, who distributed the book on Boston campuses this fall.

In an age when print is a dying concept on college campuses, Shapero, 66, founded his own publishing house and hires writers and artists to distribute his books on colleges across the country, flagrantly free of charge. Pettus and the five other promoters comprising the New England division station themselves on campuses all over the region, from Northeastern to Georgetown University. They’re paid $16 an hour to pass out the hardcover books with accompanying CDs.

“The Hope We Seek” is a fantastical story about a gold-mining camp in Alaska where miners have turned gold into a goddess named Hope, whose approval and embrace they desperately chase. It is Shapero’s third book, written and released through his vanity publishing house, Too Far Independent Media. He also offers the book in e-book and tablet app form.

On his website, richshapero.com, Shapero says he has “no commercial motive” for circulating his work. Instead, he likens himself to a street musician, playing for “whoever might have the interest to stop and listen.”

Pettus applauds that simple intent.

“It’s bizarre, but I resolve it by realizing that if this was more about getting the book out, he’d hire people who specialize in promotions,” Pettus said. “I like that he tries to support artists like us. I can support him by doing the best job I can.”

Like most of Shapero’s would-be distributors, Pettus found the gig on Craigslist, accompanied by what he called a “fairly unclear” job description that required him to show up at a warehouse in Roxbury, where he met another man and helped to unload an 18-wheeler full of books. The ad was targeted to artistic types, those who want to make a living but also pursue their own creative endeavors—and the pay was good.

“I do like the idea of different multimedia working together,” Pettus said. “And if he’s an artist himself, he’s probably not the kind who wants to meet any of the people working for him.”

While no one tracks distribution numbers, Shapero’s first book had a first printing of 50,000 copies—well above typical first printings of first-time authors.

Though at its most basic, Pettus’s job is to simply get rid of the books, he says he prefers to see them go to a good home. That means he’s happy when people bluntly admit they’re not going to read the novel and hand it back—or, on occasion, refuse to believe it’s secular and condemn it. Distribution goes most smoothly on art-centered campuses, and it gets increasingly difficult each time the team returns to a particular school. Pettus says Boston University, with its throngs of fast-moving students, is the toughest place to distribute.

Fox Sutherland, team leader for the New England division and a musician, writer and multimedia artist, has been distributing Shapero’s book for about nine months. He says it’s physically demanding work, but can be a fascinating behavioral study.

“It’s the most human thing to see someone’s absolute first, first impression when you say something to them,” Sutherland said. “With some, you get big smiles. With others you get, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

Team members tick off tricks for getting the books out of their hands and onto the street. It’s best to look like you’re heading somewhere, instead of just standing still. It helps to call it a “novel” instead of a book. It’s imperative to clarify it’s not religious. And, if you can get just one person excited, he or she serves to confirm that you’re not just a weirdo with some hidden agenda. On slow days, team members resort to juggling, decorating boxes, and setting the books up domino-style.

“Sometimes when I’m out there, I think, I can’t believe this is my job. What am I doing?” Sutherland admitted.

On his website, Shapero says he’s “created my own genealogy—a family of people that I looked up to and embraced. I’m reaching out to younger members of that same family, whoever and wherever they might be.”

Pettus and Sutherland don’t exactly consider themselves part of that family; neither has even finished the book or met its elusive author.

But out on the corner, that doesn’t matter.

“Just because it’s not my thing, doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t like it,” Sutherland said. “I think the mission is cool—to bring more light to art. I guess it’s one of those stranger-than-fiction kinds of things.”

Editor’s Note: This story was produced under a partnership with the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

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