Given the state of book publishing, starting a new publishing house right now might seem crazy—like investing in mimeograph futures, or opening a record label. Last year was particularly rough for the industry, as behemoths like Simon & Schuster and Random House announced layoffs, while Houghton Mifflin froze their acquisition of new titles entirely. It's not just the economy that's responsible: The business itself has changed. Content and form are in the middle of a prolonged and messy breakup, and no one knows how information will be delivered 10 years from now. (That said, it's certain that digital readers like Amazon's Kindle will play a role—and the iPhone, too, offers popular apps for reading ebooks, most notably Stanza, created by Portland-based startup Lexcycle.)

But while major publishers have been slow to adapt to Life 2.0, bad news for the big houses translates to opportunities for publishers and writers nimble enough take advantage of the new media landscape.

Victoria Blake could be just such a publisher. A former prose editor at Dark Horse, the 30-year-old founded Underland Press a year and a half ago, in part because she saw a niche for a publishing company that fully explored the internet's potential to connect with readers. "I had always worked for companies that didn't know how to use the internet," Blake says. "But I'm young enough to see that it was always the way to go."

Underland publishes material that can broadly be categorized as "weird," like the novel Last Days from highly regarded small-press author Brian Evenson (see review here), or award-winning Australian author Will Elliott's The Pilo Family Circus (which features an introduction by Katherine Dunn). In addition to all the requisite new-media elements—an easy-to-navigate website, a blog, web-only extras like interviews and images, downloadable excerpts from all of Underland's books—Blake has stumbled onto a new way of engaging online readers. She calls it a "wovel."

The wovel is a "web novel," and I got the impression that Blake had already heard enough about how cutesy the term is—in our interview, I didn't mention it. Instead, I asked her what distinguishes the wovel from a plain old serialized web novel. Blake expertly rattled off the wovel's tagline: It combines the "creativity of fiction with the pace of print journalism with the interactivity of web 2.0." That 2.0 interactivity is what makes the wovel unique: Every Monday, the featured author posts an installment, usually about five to seven pages in length. At the end of the installment, readers vote on which direction they want the story to take, and the author incorporates the readers' decision into the narrative.

Blake's not marketing the wovel as the future of the novel. "It's an experiment," she says, based on the simple premise that "people like to read at work." Give 'em something short, brisk, and engaging that they can read in 20 minutes at the office, and the hope is that they'll keep coming back. The wovel is free, but it draws people to the website, where they can then order books from Underland's online catalogue.

The current wovel—Underland's second—is Jemiah Jefferson's FirstWorld, a dystopic sci-fi adventure about a woman trying to track down her kidnapped daughter.

"I'd been wanting a challenge," Jefferson tells me. "And I sure got it." Jefferson says she thinks of writing serialized web fiction as akin to writing a television episode—when she's writing for the web, she focuses on streamlining the narrative, on "paring everything as close to the bone as I can without stripping it of any personality."

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This, of course, brings up an oft-raised concern: that the internet is slowly eroding our ability to read long-form material. By tailoring fiction to distracted cube-dwellers, isn't Underland contributing to the deterioration of the average attention span? Blake's succinct response to that question is worth bearing in mind as stories continue to adapt to the medium in which they're told. "I'm not concerned about people's attention spans," Blake says. "I'm concerned that they're reading good stuff."

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