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An Internet Link to the Reading Public

Books: By advertising and taking orders for his novel at a Web site, Ted Flicker is moving publishing in a new direction by appealing directly to buyers.

March 11, 1997|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Flicker has never cared about keeping in step. During the 1950s, when regional theater was practically unknown, he successfully produced Beckett and Dostoevsky at the Gaslight Theater in St. Louis, then brought improvisational theater to New York with the opening of the Premise.

In Hollywood, defying the 1960s establishment dictate that comedies demanded Technicolor, he directed, in black and white, "The Troublemaker," which is included in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Turning to television, he co-created "Barney Miller," an offbeat cop comedy that was an eight-year network hit.

And now for his next innovation, the actor-producer-sculptor-director-writer has written his first novel--about Jews in the American Civil War--which he is selling on the Internet in a bid to bypass the publishing industry.

Flicker, who grandly describes his scheme as "a revolution," says it has the potential to liberate writers and readers from what he sees as the tyranny of a mega-media publishing industry that would "rather give $4 million to Dick Morris than support a real writer."

He's even becoming something of a cyberhero, though he acknowledges it's an unlikely role. "I'm too old [66], and I'm not Internet-savvy," he said. "But I've always loved the future and the excitement of what technology will bring."

Flicker, who left Hollywood for Santa Fe, N.M., 10 years ago, has spent almost five years writing "The Good American." He launched its Internet sales this month by posting three sample chapters, background material and an order form at http://www.good-american.com.

Flicker explained that he can sell the 500-page book for only $9.95 because: "This book doesn't have to pay its share of the $2 billion Viacom borrowed to buy Paramount to acquire Simon & Schuster. It doesn't have to pay its share of a fleet of corporate jets or the 15 floors of Manhattan real estate needed to house all those middle managers."

"The Good American," a richly narrated historical novel, has its own offbeat appeal. The Jewish population of America at the start of the Civil War was about 150,000, and two Jews rose to the rank of general in the Union Army. This is the historical framework for the novel's hero, a young Bavarian horseman who renounces Judaism, immigrates to America, and is swept up by the ordeal of the war.

Flicker, who was born in New Jersey and educated at Bard College and London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, said the book reflects his own spiritual search.

Intrigued by the lively mix of literary activity on the Internet, he teamed with publisher Bill Blitz to start Shalako Press in Santa Fe as an Internet pioneering model. Shalako has ties to a Xprinting company that can do a quick turnaround on book orders, so it can operate on a near supply-and-demand basis. Flicker is limiting his investment to $250,000.

"I'll reach a ga-zillion people and cut out a mountain of middlemen," he told "Marketplace" host David Brancaccio on Public Radio International recently. It was the launching of his three-pronged promotional campaign: a traditional print, radio and TV circuit; advertising on such Internet sites as Yahoo and Hotwired; and a third "niche" market approach, which includes a 10-synagogue national speaking tour.

If it works, he said, he envisions an expanded Web site that he tentatively calls Bookstreet, which would welcome any writer.

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His Web site, which had been registering about 200 hits a day, shot up to more than 15,000 after his radio interview.

Flicker and Blitz, of course, are not the first to see the Internet as a way for unknown writers to reach an audience. The Internet bustles with Web sites of writers seeking publishers and publishers hyping established authors.

Brancaccio, who reports regularly on Internet business, said he's not sure Flicker has proved his point when he boasts of selling his novel on the Internet.

"I've read the book and it's nice, and he's a good salesman," Brancaccio said. "But what he's using is an interplay between the mass media and the new medium. He has to use traditional media, like us, to get the word out. You can post any site on the Internet, but you've got to get people there somehow."

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