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Adventures in old-time bookselling

Alex Green is no stranger to the long shot.

He started his bookstore, Back Pages Books in Waltham, after graduating from Brandeis University, despite everyone telling him the independent bookstore was a dying breed. Two years later, the store is still here, and Green has begun a campaign challenging the idea that a book needs a recommendation from Oprah Winfrey and a display at Barnes & Noble to be successful.

Launching what it calls The 1001 Book Project, Back Pages Books is relying not on a massive publicity engine or a huge chain of stores, but on old-fashioned word-of-mouth among its fiercely loyal patrons, to sell 1,001 copies of a local author's book.

The project aims to sell out local author Jon Papernick's first novel, selling one more than the 1,000-book first printing by his Canadian publisher, Exile Editions. Back Pages has the exclusive right to sell Papernick's book in the United States -- until, at least, the project succeeds in attracting an American publisher. The 346-page book, which has a $26.95 list price, will sell for $21.50 at Back Pages.

"If I can prove to a publisher that a 1,000-square-foot bookstore in a suburb of Boston can presell an entire print run before it's released, then maybe American publishers will take a second look," said Green. "Maybe they look at it and say that maybe if 1,000 people want [a book] from this small bookstore, then maybe thousands of people across the country will buy it."

Green and Papernick dreamed up the idea together. They've been friends since Green opened the store in 2005 and Papernick jokingly asked him why he wasn't included in the section of local authors. Papernick lives in Waltham with his wife and son and will be Emerson College's writer-in-residence this fall. His first book, a collection of short stories titled "The Ascent of Eli Israel," is now a bestseller at the store.

"Who by Fire, Who by Blood," is a thriller set in New York before and after Sept. 11, 2001. Its main character is a secular Jewish man trying to live an apathetic, uninvolved existence -- until he discovers his late father's involvement with a Jewish terrorist cell and gets sucked into its world. The plot winds around themes of terrorism, justice, and history.

Since May 21, Back Pages has presold more than 230 copies, with another hundred or so sold in Canada. Green said he's heard from readers as far away as Washington, D.C. The project lasts until the book arrives on the store's shelves in late September.

Part of Green's passion in getting the word out is fueled by his devotion to putting forward voices that he says aren't being widely heard. The store has in the past hosted non-mainstream authors such as Howard Zinn and is planning a reading with Noam Chomsky.

Green sees in Papernick's book an idea that flies in the face of post-Sept. 11 convention -- in which terrorism is associated solely with Islam and the Muslim world. Green says it is what his customers are looking for, "someone who's coming at things in an entirely different way, but can still tell a damn good story."

Papernick, a 36-year-old Toronto native, said that after his book of short stories was published and then favorably reviewed in The New York Times, he thought success would take care of itself. It didn't. Now he's convinced that today's authors have to be more proactive in promoting their work, finding imaginative ways to rise above the crowd.

"Being a writer is only partially about being an artist. It's also about being a salesman, if you want people to read it," Papernick said.

Michael Callaghan, the head of Exile Editions, said he supported the 1001 Book Project because, basically, he thought it would work. As a small publishing house, budgetary restraints limit the amount of promotion that can be devoted to a single author. Traditional methods don't pull in the readers that they used to, Callaghan said, and Papernick and Green were offering a creative way to attract attention.

"You can't expect to sell books through one print ad that runs for one day in one newspaper," Callaghan said by phone from Toronto. He said the sales so far were encouraging. For a small Canadian publishing house such as his, he said, a 1,000-copy first printing is fairly large, and pre-sales in the hundreds are unusual for a relatively unknown author.

Shel Horowitz, a publishing industry and marketing consultant and author based in Hadley, said that it's much harder for a new author to make his or her mark these days.

For one thing, Horowitz said, there's been an exponential increase in the number of books published each year. Last year, there were nearly 300,000 making their debut. Fifteen years ago, the number was in the tens of thousands. "Also, with the consolidation of publishing companies, things are much more bottom-line driven -- much less on the basis of quality," said Horowitz. "They're going on the basis of whether it will sell, not so much on whether it has literary merit."

Horowitz said Papernick and Green may be on to something -- and any hype they can generate will probably work in their favor.

"I'd be curious to see what kind of book would be marketed this way, and for this reason I probably would want to read it," he said.

Green hopes the innovative effort will also inspire other independent bookstore owners not to give up in the face of Internet retailers such as

"We've got absolutely nothing to lose," he said.

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at