Novel Approach

Leo Sonderegger may one day be seen as the backyard scribbler who turned an industry upside down and brought legitimacy to print-on-demand publishing.

The title of Leo Sonderegger's novel hardly rolls off the tongue, at least in the first few gos. It's a flummox of syllables that snag and snarl somewhere this side of the tonsils before blowing past the teeth in God-knows-what order. But once you spit them out a few times correctly, it's hard to stop saying them.


Getting the pronunciation right is a worthy exercise for anyone interested in the rapidly-changing business of book publishing, and especially for those with an affinity for fine literature.

The book was published by, which, along with its larger competitor,, form what Sonderegger calls, with obvious irony, "the black beasts of print-on-demand publishing."

What is print-on-demand publishing? Simple: You pay an on-line entrepreneur to print your book. It doesn't have to be any good. It doesn't have to say anything. Just about anything scratched on paper will do.

Writer qualifications? Zero. In other words, a close cousin of a vanity press.

But Sonderegger is different and so is Glumdalclitch. It might be the best first novel to come out in years.

The story is a follow-up to Jonathan Swift's classic, Gulliver's Travels. It tracks the fate of Lemuel Gulliver's caretaker, Wendeling, after Gulliver's departure from Swift's island of giants, Brobdingnag. The title is a Brobdingnagian term meaning "little nurse."

The prose is beautiful, the plot fairly gallops and the love story is tenderly presented.

These are all good and rare things--remarkable, in fact, for a work written by World War II-era conscientious objector with a handshake that could bring you to one knee, an 87-year-old fiction whippersnapper who might be taking part in a revolution that forever changes the way traditional publishing does business.

And he wrote it largely in longhand in his backyard. But he does most of his writing now at Cuppuccino's Coffee House on East Speedway.

"Working there harks back to my time in newsrooms," says Sonderegger, who spent more than 60 years of his working life as a newspaperman. "It was very loud, a lot of shouting, phones and machines going off. I guess I got used to it.

"Cuppuccinos can get pretty noisy and I have one bad ear now. So I put an earplug in my good ear and sit there and write. It seems to work."

Sonderegger spent the majority of his career in Tucson running a copy service called the Alburn Bureau. His job was to provide editorials to small-town and rural newspapers run by men and women too busy to write their own.

For 42 years--from the Eisenhower nap through much of the Clinton tornado--he pounded out 7,000 to 8,000 words of opinion a week, the majority championing liberal ideas that often were unpopular with his middle-American readers.

But Sonderegger has always been partial to unpopular ideas, such as his decision not to fight in World War II.

"I felt then and still feel today that war is not just a stupid way, but a terrible way to settle differences," he says. "Since then I've had a lot of soul-searching because that was one war that might've been justified.

"Hitler was going to do terrible things to western civilization unless he was stopped. But I didn't make the decision lightly."

When he closed the Bureau in 1998, Sonderegger thought it was time to have fun. So he undertook the task, arduous for someone half a century younger, of writing a novel--a very different animal from editorial writing.

"It's peculiar, isn't it?" he says. "I'm in the odd position of being the oldest new writer in the world. A lot of men my age are in rocking chairs."

Sonderegger pauses a moment to reflect, then quotes a passage from Gray's Elegy--full many a flower is born to blush unseen.

"My college English professor didn't believe that line was true of writers," he says. "If you were born to write, you'll write. But it's important to sit down and face the paper."

He did that. But at the novel's completion he had no idea where to turn. Years of isolation in his editorial office on East Broadway left him with no contacts with agents in New York or anywhere. More importantly, he didn't feel he had the time to find one.

"After 60-odd years as a deadline journalist, during which I didn't have time to write what I wanted, I really thought I should spend whatever time I have left writing," says Sonderegger, who, along with his wife of 65 years, Marian, also raised six children.

His daughter, Suzanne, who'd read about print-on-demand books in Publisher's Weekly, suggested having it printed through Iuniverse, which introduced its author-publishing service in November 1999.

For $99, the company's baseline service, the writer submits an online manuscript, which then takes, on average, 120 days to get it into print form. The company works with a network of printers, each able to accept a digital transmission of the book directly into its printing infrastructure.

The books are produced in quantities as small as one and shipped. The process eliminates the need for publishers to warehouse books, and to guess how many copies to print in the first place.

Sonderegger chose the Cadillac package, the company's most expensive. For $300, Inuiverse produced an attractive, 234-page paperback edition of Glumdalclitch, with a beautiful cover illustration, that arrived on Sonderegger's desk in December of last year.

He promptly bought 50 copies for himself. Determining how many additional copies Iuniverse has sold is a bit tricky.

Bill Jordan, the company's senior vice president for business development, told a reporter that for privacy reasons, he couldn't release the figure. But he said he'd call Sonderegger to ask his permission to do so.

Instead of doing that, someone else from the company called Sonderegger and asked him to please not reveal the figure. But Sonderegger, a lifelong crusader against censorship, did so anyway, even though, as he acknowledges, it proves somewhat embarrassing.

As of six weeks ago, Iuniverse has sold a grand total of six copies of Glumdalclitch. The book also is available on, which has probably shipped another handful.

But Sonderegger has heard of two episodes in which people who ordered the book through Amazon received something odd in the mail--a book with the correct cover, but the wrong story inside.

He has no idea how that came about. Glumdalclitch is now listed on Barnes and Noble's website, but for awhile the book giant inexplicably listed it as a new out-of-print book.

In spite of its availability through these sources, the silence accompanying the book's release has been thundering. It has generated no buzz among book people and no print reviewer has written about it.

But three reviews have appeared on, where anyone can write a critique and post it above their initials. One critic wrote that he wished it had gone on a hundred pages more, and hoped a sequel was in the works.

"I was pretty excited," says Sonderegger. "But it turned out the writer was a friend of mine in California."

A second review also was written by a friend and the third by his daughter.

THIS STANDARD-LESS galaxy, its gates thrown open to everyone, drives editors at traditional publishing houses bonkers.

They fret that POD publishers will further clog an already over-loaded mass market for books. And virtually everything they clog it with will be junk that hasn't been put through any reasonable vetting mechanism.

"That's a rather presumptuous perspective," says Iunivere's Jordan. "It presumes that a traditional publisher knows what content deserves to be published and sent around the world. We say the marketplace knows best, not the publisher."

Certainly Xlibris CEO John Feldcamp believes that. He recently boasted in Harper's magazine that his company will be producing 100,000 POD books a year by 2004.

Jordan says Iuniverse sells thousands of hard-copy books a month.

"We've tapped into an incredible vein of demand for people to express themselves and reach new audiences," says Jordan. "Not only is it a good business, but I say it's a noble calling. We're empowering the 96 to 97 percent of writers who're sitting on content they can't get published."

Noble is a stretch. Vanity is still the watchword, even though both Iuniverse and Xlibris claim to be totally unlike the old pay-to-publish presses that have been around for decades.

To test that claim, Tom Bissell, an editor at Henry Holt, and Webster Younce, an editor at Arcade Publishing, both traditional publishing houses, sent to Xlibris a book they ginned-up called The Bellybutton Fiasco: A Fictional Novel.

The nonsensical story features a boy named Toby whose navel possesses pyrokinetic powers, and plagiarized chunks of Moby Dick, filtered through Gilligan's Island.

The results, published in the December 2000 issue of Harper's, were not surprising. Xlibris was delighted to get its hands on The Bellybutton Fiasco.

In their article, the horrified editors also pointed out that 70 percent of the books Xlibris sells are bought by the authors themselves.

Jordan doesn't know what the corresponding figure is at Iuniverse, but guesses it is "more than 60 percent."

Although their arguments are worth making, the principal objection these editors have to POD publishing is that it bypasses them.

Bissell and Younce made this point inadvertently in the first sentence of their Harper's piece: "Getting published is no longer a luxury reserved solely for photogenic tyros."

What they seem to acknowledge is that old-style publishing is nothing more than a beauty contest now anyway. So if a good pair of baby blues can get you published in New York, what's wrong with a fee getting you published by a print-on-demand company?

Sonderegger sees nothing wrong with it--even though his experience with Iuniverse has had its disappointments. "It's kind of a black comedy, isn't it?" he says.

But he adds that he'd do the same thing again. His biggest bother is the need to promote the book, which steals time from his writing and forces this essentially shy man to blow his own horn.

Says wife Marian, "I've had a fight on my hands to get him to think of himself as a writer with something to say. He's a person who needs to be heard, but he's so shy."

But Sonderegger is taking steps to bring his work before the public. He's sent copies to about a dozen independent bookstores around the country, and to numerous book editors. He's also been running around town dropping it off at local bookstores, such as Antigone, Reader's Oasis and Mostly Books.

"I'm afraid I've become quite shameless," he says.

The Weekly asked employees at two of those bookstores to read Glumdalclitch and comment on it. Bobbe Arnett, at Mostly Books, said, "I think Jonathan Swift would've been pleased with the continued adventures of his characters on Brobdingnag."

Lynn La Plant, co-owner of Reader's Oasis, loved the cover art, and thought it was a "beautifully crafted story, one of the few books out there that would attract young women." But she found it hard to memorize the characters' difficult names.

Pressed to assess his own work, Sonderegger finally issues something akin to a boast: "I've decided it's not bad. As a professional I can look at it calmly and know it's well-written. I'd compare it to E.B. White. I think it's in the same literary family as Stuart Little or Charlotte's Web. I'm told young adults read those books with great pleasure."

They almost certainly would read Glumdalclitch with equal delight. But adults, too, would find pleasure in its central theme of a woman, Wendeling, rising to great prominence in her male-dominated kingdom, and the excitements she and her lover, Harlbruug, have as the story marches along on the strength of precise language that showcases a writer in full control of his skill:

The two guards thrust forward, drawing their sabres as they came. Harlbruug waited in feigned compliance. Just as they began to sheathe their weapons again he spurred Sengelir, and the grey leaped between them and hard at Skraagnok. That traitorous officer's mount reared in terror and shied away, unseating its rider. Harlbruug had just time to see Skraagnok sprawled in the dust as he sent the grey filly hurtling through the open gate and onto the westering road.

A second passage, when Wendeling proposes to Harlbruug:

When all had entered the carriages and trotted away toward the palace, Harlbruug turned to Wendeling. "And what," said he, "was afoot between you and Her Majesty? Methinks you two were behaving like schoolgirls."

"I confess; 'tis true," she replied. "Yet 'twas a serious matter we were discussing." She looked deeply into his eyes. "We talked of a certain wedding in May, here in the atrium--and did much wonder if mayhap you would find this convenient."

Harlbruug's reply was couched in a universal language. With no word, he took Wendeling into his arms and kissed her soundly. And thus it was decided.

EVEN THOUGH THE odds are greatly against Glumdalclitch attracting any sizeable readership, it isn't beyond the realm. Publishing is full of episodes in which editors turn away books that end up being classics. Lightning can strike.

If some such event occurred, and Sonderegger became a literary star at 87, future commentators might look back on his experiment as a watershed. He could be known as a literary bombthrower, the backyard scribbler who turned an industry upside down and brought legitimacy to print-on-demand publishing--assuming it doesn't have the tiniest measure of it right now.

After all, Random House, the huge New York publisher, has a significant minority investment in Xlibris, and has already plucked one book from Xlibris' list--make that inventory--to bring out under the RH's Broadway imprint: How To Marry Your Soul Mate In One Year.

But that's a lot easier to pronounce than Glumdalclitch.

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