December 28, 2011

On-line fiction project breaks new ground

As published in The Erin Advocate

Instead of retiring after a long career in publishing, John Denison has been writing the books he's always wanted to write. And this Sunday, January 1, he is launching an on-line project that challenges the traditional concept of a book.

"I just wanted to have fun," said Denison, who operated Boston Mills Press on Erin's Main Street for many years, specializing in books about Ontario's heritage. He's out of that field now (Firefly Books now has the Boston Mills brand), and has turned to fiction for teens and young adults.

Occam's Razor is the story of a comic book author nearing retirement who is kidnapped by one of his arch-evil characters. The tale swings between the "real" and fantasy worlds (with a different typeface for each) as the author's daughter dresses up as the comic book heroine Major Occam and crosses over to rescue her dad.

The publishing industry has seen the rise of e-books, to be read on computers or portable devices, and of sophisticated graphic novels from the comic book tradition. Digital presses can now produce high quality books very quickly, at low cost, and in very low quantities if necessary.

Denison's venture builds on these trends, combined with an old-fashioned serial technique – a new short chapter will be released every day for 120 days. He pushes the definition of a book by allowing readers to contribute illustrations, music, video and games, which will appear with the text. When the story is over, readers can order their own customized e-book or paper copy, with the illustrations they choose. Artists can order a version with their art alone.

"I think I'm the first one to do this," he said. "The book world I knew is flying away and whatever's next is arriving like a subway train. Hop on or go home seem to be the only choices."

The project is happening world-wide at, with the help of Forsefield, a young design team from Newmarket. They have also created downloadable apps and an Occam's Razor video game, available on iTunes.

Denison always liked the sound of "Occam's Razor". It's the name of his comic book universe, but also the real name of an ancient scientific principle that favours simple theories. Einstein is said to have summed it up thus: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

The story has lots of visual imagery, including a young dragon, that provide starting points for illustrators. And because the characters live in each person's imagination, they do not have to look the same in each picture. Denison says that all submitted images (screened only for good taste) will be posted with the chapters – everything from sophisticated illustrations to crayon drawings by little kids.

Go to the site's Artist Portal to find out about submitting your work. Or just check out the art that has already arrived, from as far away as Indonesia. Registered artists will get the chapters five days before the public, giving them a chance to create something related to the text. Music, video and games are also welcome, along with recordings of the text that could become part of an audio book.

Following the story or being a contributor is all free, but Denison is hoping to recover some of his investment through an on-line store that sells his other novels on a linked website, The home page there has previews of Fartboy and Booger (aimed at the adolescent male reader), along with Hanna The President's Daughter and Unlock Holmes Space Detective.

These books are available through the "print-on-demand" business model, which reduces traditional publishing risks and costs. There is no inventory, no expensive equipment and no chance of book stores returning the product. When you order a book on-line at a site like, it can be printed, bound and shipped in just a few days, and the publisher/author makes a better profit margin than they could ever hope for in the traditional model.

Denison's stories have brisk plots, prose that is easy to read (but not dumbed-down), engaging characters, believable emotional interactions and a range of modern issues. After reading a few preview chapters of the Occam story, I was left with an important question: "What's going to happen next?"

Major Occam probably won't be the next Harry Potter (but you never know). And maybe others will come along and take this new genre to new heights. That's all fine with Denison, as he gets ready to fling his creation out to the world.