PUNTA GORDA, Fla., USA – “The role of the self-published author is not an easy one,” Malcolm J. Brenner said, sliding onto a dingy leather couch that might have once been white. “In addition to successfully writing one’s magnum opus, one must also bring it forth into the real world, where it will grow up to compete in a ruthlessly Darwinian struggle for readers and reviewers.”
Brenner sipped iced tea – his habitual summer drink, with the occasional hard cider thrown in for historic, recreational and religious reasons – and relaxed. He had the furrowed brow of a man who has a lot on his mind, and no wonder. He recently finished re-formatting a 113,000-word Microsoft Word file for the ebook version of his most famous, or infamous work, the 2010 autobiographical novel Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover.
“It’s basically a re-telling of a torrid love affair I had with a female bottlenose dolphin in the summer of 1970,” Brenner explained. “I just changed the names and a few details so that living people on whom the characters are based couldn’t sue me. Even though I’m publishing it as a novel, it’s much closer to Tom Wolfe-style ‘new journalism’ than it is to fiction.”
An admitted procrastinator since childhood, Brenner said that Smashwords, which publishes and distributes the ebook edition of Wet Goddess, alerted him last November that changes to their Premium Catalogue distribution system might require revising the file, which he first uploaded in 2011. “I wasn’t clear on the details of what exactly the problem was, but apparently the old file no longer satisfied the new requirements, or so they said,” he said.
The Smashwords Premium Catalog puts the book into the hands of all the large ebook distributors, including iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, OverDrive, Tolino, Gardners, Odilo, Baker & Taylor Axis 360 and more. “I’m interested in sharing my experiences with dolphins as widely as possible,” Brenner said. “They are non-human people, so it behooved me to take care of this update issue sooner or later.”
After receiving warning emails for several months, Brenner finally pulled up his socks and tackled the problem himself. This versatility, he said, demonstrates the technical virtuosity required of successful self-published authors in the 21st Century.
“If you’re an aspiring author and you’re lucky enough to land an agent or a publisher these days, you can thank a higher power,” Brenner scoffed. “I knew a controversial book like Wet Goddess would be a hard sell even for a successful author. I made a few stabs at finding a publisher without success, and an agent took me on for a while.
“She wined and dined me once at a book fair in Tampa, then, with no explanation, stopped communicating. Months went by with no word. It was only when I threatened to sue her to recover my manuscript that I learned from an irate family member she was still recovering from a near-fatal car crash months before.
“In publishing, like anywhere else, sometimes shit just happens,” Brenner concluded, with a hint of resignation. After more rejections, he responded by abandoning the idea of conventional publishing and taking on all the tasks himself. “It required me to become a jack-of-all trades, but the fact that I don’t get along well with many people actually makes that a good way to work,” Brenner admitted. “If I work for myself, I may have an asshole for a boss, but at least he understands me.”
Brenner pre-sold copies of Wet Goddess to family and friends to raise funds for the initial press run of 50 copies. A sympathetic friend contributed necklaces made from fossilized sharks’ teeth as premiums for advance sales. The worst problems came from trying to get the manuscript proofread before it went to print.
“Don’t get me started,” Brenner fumed. “I hired a so-called proofreader from a local community college, but she could only proof in academic style! Book manuscripts require what’s known as Chicago style, and besides, Wet Goddess has a lot of colloquial dialogue in it,” he recalled. “Every time a redneck character used the word “ain’t,” she flagged it – more than 300 times in the manuscript! You’d think that if she was professional she’d have called me up and asked me what my intention was, but no.”
As a result of this and other unforeseen difficulties that cost him the original author’s proof copy of his debut novel, the first press run of Wet Goddess shipped with about 250 typos in it, including one whole, and rather crucial, paragraph repeated, Brenner admitted.
“It appears very close to the, uh, shall we say ‘climax’ of the novel, and it was very embarrassing to find it,” he explained. “I hope I’ve got it stuck back in the right place now.”
For a cover, Brenner was able to rely on the talents of his daughter, Thea Boodhoo, an advertising industry professional and college-trained artist. “I was going to use a B&W photo of a dolphin that a friend in New Mexico colorized many years ago,” he said, “but Thea thought she could do better, and when I saw her finished work I knew she was right. I only made a couple of very minor Photoshop changes to the file she handed me to make the title stand out more and add the subtitle.”
A friend who owned a small desktop publishing business referred Brenner to Royal Palm Press, a nearby print-on-demand company, for production services. “I had no idea what the local reaction to the book would be, so I had a chat with Tom Lewis, the press’s owner at the time, to make sure he wasn’t blindsided,” Brenner said. “Tom said ‘As long as it’s between consenting adults, that’s fine with me,’ and that was that.” Brenner also served as his own layout artist, an experience he described as “a mad blur of on-the-job training.”
With book in hand, Brenner ventured onto the soggy ground of marketing. “Here, I got terrifically lucky,” he said. “I didn’t have the money to hire a public relations firm to distribute a press release, but I found one that had a reverse-charge policy. The media outlets who received the press releases paid for the service, not me, so my initial publicity was free!”
Upon its release in January 2010, the novel received intense press coverage due to its taboo-shredding themes of interspecies sex, zoophilic love and a dolphin character smart enough to out-think a human. “For a while it was frantic, but very gratifying,” Brenner recalled. “I was doing several interviews a week, sometimes two a day. A few of the interviewers were skeptical or harsh about what they thought might have been going on, but the majority were genuinely curious to know what happened, and to learn more about dolphins.”
Since then, the book has enjoyed sales surges whenever some news gatherer gets curious and wants to know about his experience, Brenner said. One came in 2011, when a New Zealand TV producer, David Farrier, released a videotaped interview with Brenner he’d recorded the year before. Others don’t conjure such pleasant memories. Brenner felt humiliated by shock-jock Howard Stern’s 2015 obsession with his zoophilia, and a 2011 interview with Bubba the Love Sponge cost him a gig with a local slick when its advertisers threatened to withdraw unless the magazine dropped him.
Brenner’s most recent foray into the murky waters of self-promotion was somewhat less melodramatic. “When I finally got around to looking at the Smashwords file, it said there was a problem with one of the book’s photos, but I couldn’t find it with a self-diagnostic program they offer,” Brenner said. “So I took a chance and asked Smashwords’ customer service, citing the warning notices they sent me.”
He quickly received a courteous reply from a guy named Kevin, explaining that the problem was probably due to the use of colons in his chapter titles and sub-sections. “I was glad it was so easily resolved,” Brenner said, “until I downloaded the file onto my computer to make the corrections and realized what a mess it was.”
In the interim between uploading the file in 2011 and downloading it in 2018, Microsoft had changed Word and given it a new file extension, .docx instead of the original .doc. “That one little ‘x,’ unfortunately, made a hell of a lot of difference,” Brenner said. “When I had to add a couple of pages to the print manuscript of Wet Goddess, converting the book from the old to the new file format inserted blank spaces more or less at random between paragraphs. I had to start at the beginning and re-do the whole layout, including throwing in a couple of new photos to fill some yawning blanks.”
The problems with the ebook file were similar. There, many words were unnecessarily hyphenated, and photos had to be re-aligned to make sure they didn’t obscure the text. Brenner said the process took him about two weeks, including a couple of days off when he wasn’t feeling well, but he’s glad he did it.
“I don’t have the money to pay somebody else anyway,” he complained, “so I might as well do it myself, because being retired I do have a fair amount of time. Besides, whenever I master a task like this, I improve my overall word-processing skills, which helps me find work in the freelance job market.”
In the eight years Wet Goddess has been in print, it has sold about 1,500 copies in 18 countries, mostly in the English-speaking world, due to Brenner’s unflagging self-promotion efforts. When a fan in Russia contacted him three years ago to inform Brenner he’d undertaken an unauthorized translation, the author responded by granting him permission to publish it there! “It hasn’t taken off yet, because the translator, Anton River, lives in a very conservative northern city,” Brenner said. “He’s planning to move to a better climate soon, and I hope he’ll renew his efforts to promote the book when he does.”
In addition to Wet Goddess, Brenner has written and self-published two other books.
Growing Up in the Orgone Box, published in 2014, is an unflinching memoir of his torture and sexual molestation at the hands of Dr. Albert Duvall, an “orgone energy” therapist and close associate of the late Dr. Wilhelm Reich, and the dysfunctional family structure that allowed this to happen.
His 2016 novel Mel-Khyor: An Interstellar Affair is a more light-hearted romp through the mythology and culture of the UFO scene, told from the point of view of a young woman determined to live up to her family’s expectations of her, no matter what it costs her personally. “There is, again, inter-species sex, but since the other species is bipedal, mostly humanoid and obviously sapient, nobody should blow a 50 amp fuse over it,” Brenner said. “After all, ‘Star Trek,’ Edgar Rice Burroughs and countless other science-fiction writers have only been doing it for about 100 years.”
Sales on these two books have been nowhere near those of Wet Goddess, Brenner said, and he’s had difficulty getting them any kind of publicity or reviews. “That’s because, while they’re both sexually radical books, they’re not as radical as a man and a dolphin making love,” he said. “Somehow, that just blows people’s minds.”
Having just turned 67, Brenner hopes to see his work more widely appreciated before he dies. Asked if he thought his writing would endure beyond his lifespan, he waxed philosophical.
“My daughter might take it on, but she’s not planning to have children, so who knows what will happen over the course of time? We only know of the Greek poet Sappho’s beautiful writing because it was used to wrap fish,” he noted.
“Let us remember that from the point of view of a book, which may endure for millennia if it’s an epic, humans are fleeting things who read it at some point in their limited lifespans, devoting to it some portion of their precious time,” Brenner said, drawing on an eerie theme reminiscent of the ambiguous Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. “For this reason, books, especially long-lived books like Epic of Gilgamesh, Tao De Ching and Cattle Raid of Ulster, are grateful for the time their readers spend with them. The books try to compensate the readers through a symbiotic relationship that informs you with a novel set of ideas, or supports your need for entertainment that doesn’t require batteries, WiFi or 3D glasses.
“I think that we humans, as a species, have a lot to learn from our dolphin cousins,” Brenner concluded. “As for my writings, they will survive if people find value in them.”