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Print-on-demand publishers Paul Mossinger and Phil Reynolds are making things happen in the secret world of conspiracy-theory fiction.
“It all started the day I wrote ‘Total Choas’ on that whiteboard at work,” Phil Reynolds says cryptically. “Should I go into that?”
Reynolds looks at Paul Mossinger, his business partner, to get the go-ahead. Mossinger snickershe knows that he’s the only other person in the room who has any idea what Reynolds is talking about. “I think you should go into a little of thatbut not the whole thing,” Mossinger says decisively and with mischievous glee.
Mossinger and Reynolds, the co-conspirators behind the Northern Virginia-based Invisible College Press, are very much like those smart kids in your seventh-grade science class who always had an inside joke and were dying to give away just part of it. Right now, that joke has to do with how Mossinger and Reynolds started their small print-on-demand publishing housewhich happens to specialize in fiction involving conspiracy plots and UFOs. Because the Invisible College Press is invisible in the sense that it has no real office, we’re meeting at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle.
So, then, what’s all this business about “choas” (which is pronounced “co-ass”) anyway? And how did these two nice Defense Department guys ever get involved in something so far outside the mainstream?
They look at each other as if silently grappling over who gets to tell the funny parts of the story. Reynolds wins.
Mossinger and Reynolds met five years ago, while they were both working for the Department of Defense. (Reynolds still works there; Mossinger is now a private contractor for the federal government. Neither cares to elaborate on what he does for a living.) They seem, at first glance, to be polar opposites. Reynolds looks like a buttoned-down, mild-mannered family man; he is dressed in a suit, and speaks softly. Mossinger, on the other hand, is a ball of chatty energy. His jeans,
T-shirt, three earrings, and unbridled enthusiasm make him seem younger than his 30 years.
But, superficial differences aside, the odd couple has some definite commonalities. “Our jobs were so boring that we needed to do something to get our minds stimulated,” says Reynolds, who is in his late 40s and has graying hair, a bushy mustache, five kids, and strong ties to the UFO community. “We were involved in technical operations and government jobs that take about 10 percent of your brainpower.”
One day, on his lunch break, Reynolds just happened to cut through the woods behind a nearby 7-Eleven, where he discovered some graffiti: On an electrical box, someone had spray-painted “Total Choas.” “I thought, Those idiots!” says Reynolds. “But then I realized that that was truly chaotic, because to spell it right wouldn’t really be chaos.”
He went back to the office and immediately inscribed the phrase on a co-worker’s whiteboard. “And then,” he says, “the first thing that happens is one of these engineer types comes in to fix it because it’s wrong.” That’s when he knew he was onto something.
“What is choas? Nobody knows. So we came up with all these acronyms for what it meant,” Mossinger says. “We made up this whole big conspiracy thing that CHOAS was this supersecret organization that was taking over the world, and we were in charge.” The pair set up a Web site called the CHOAS Manifesto (www.members.tripod.com/
-choas2) to house the more than 2,000 slogans and acronyms they dreamed up.
The site looks as if it’s the brainchild of some wildly anarchic underground organization: The only graphic is a rotating skull, and the text is a seemingly endless compendium of watch-your-back propaganda: “CHOAS: Divided we stand,” “Embrace your fear! Join CHOAS,” “CHOAS: Bending the laws that just won’t break,” “You may own it, but it still belongs to CHOAS,” “CHOAS: Licking the wounds of the body politic.”
The duo thought that they just might have something marketable in this vast array of offbeat phrases, so Mossinger found a Web merchandising company that would take their slogans and print them on bumper stickers and buttons. They discovered that the more people they clued in to their CHOAS game, the more they found themselves lamenting that there wasn’t some way to expand their vision. Why couldn’t there be, for example, some fiction in the same vein? After all, Mossinger and Reynolds both had writer friends who always complained that they couldn’t get their books published.
They officially started Invisible College at the end of last year and have just a handful of books out right now; the goal is to get five to 10 publications out and then find a distributor. When it came to naming their new venture, they decided to scrap the confusing choas idea and instead chose “Invisible College Press,” alluding to a secret history of mystical and scientific studies. In the Middle Ages, alchemists and other groups of people with mysterious areas of expertise called their bodies of knowledge the Invisible College because it wasn’t localized anywhere. During the Renaissance, the term was applied to mystics. More recently, it’s been associated with Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and even UFO studies.
“The name is perfect for us, because we really are a virtual company,” Mossinger says.
“And because we’ve been persecuted over time,” adds Reynolds.
“And we can change lead into gold,” Mossinger quips.
Persecution and lead-to-gold claims aside, Invisible College does indeed operate totally via computer, with the pair’s Virginia residencesMossinger’s in Crystal City, Reynolds’ in Woodbridgeserving as home bases for the company. Mossinger and Reynolds work with their writers via e-mail, making changes to an electronic copy of each book’s text. The finished text is then passed along to Lightning Source Inc., a Tennessee-based subsidary of the Ingram Book Group, where it sits until someone wants a copy.
Customers buy the books from the Invisible College Press Web site, Amazon.com, or Barnesandnoble.
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com. Whenever an order is placed, Lightning Source is automatically contacted and instructed to print the book through a system that is roughly like a bookbinding machine wired to a computer. It then sends the finished product to the customer and the proceeds to Invisible College. This system makes Invisible College’s expenses virtually nil.
“Our setup costs are less than $500 per book,” Mossinger says. “So it’s going to be very hard for us to go out of business.” That means that Invisible College can take chances on untested writers whose hard-to-categorize, hard-to-market subject matter makes them unappealing to the major publishing houses. “We really want to give a voice to writers who can’t get a voice elsewhere,” says Mossinger. “Everyone has one book in them,” Reynolds adds, “and we want to publish that one book.”
The teaming of Mossinger and Reynolds is a complementary one from a business standpoint. Mossinger has a number of friends hoping to publish their work for the conspiracy part of Invisible Press’ niche. And Reynolds has key connections in the UFO portion of their target audience. From 1994 to 1996, Reynolds ran the Phoenix Newsletter, a newsletter for people interested in UFOs. His own interest stems from growing up in Fort Pierce, Fla., where it seemed everyone had a story of seeing unexplained lights in the skythough Reynolds is surprisingly mum on the subject of what he may have seen himself.
“Sure, I saw things that I didn’t know what they were, and I saw some really bizarre things, but if it’s unidentified and it’s flying, then it’s an unidentified flying object,” he says. “But my best friend as a child would tell all these tales, in detail, about these creatures that would come out at night. So I was sort of on the periphery of it, and it was all happening around me.”
Reynolds printed stories on some of the best cities for UFO sightings and also branched into other topics, even running an article about the threat of right-wing militias nine months before the Oklahoma City bombing. Though he stopped publishing his newsletter in 1996, he’s still plugged in to the UFO community. He plans to market Invisible College Press’ books at October’s semiannual International Fortean Organization convention in College Park, Md., a gathering of people who follow the writings of Charles Fort, a New Yorker who chronicled paranormal phenomena in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Reynolds also plans to dust off his list of 4,000 newsletter subscribers, a goldmine of potential Invisible College customers.
The good news for Invisible College is that it can break even on each book it publishes by selling only 200 copies. The bad news is that the only title to sell that many so far is a novel that doesn’t even fit the press’s specialty: the sex romp Tattoo of a Naked Lady, written by Mossinger’s friend Brandon Kwiatek. But Mossinger and Reynolds have high hopes for their most recent release: the theological fantasy novel The Third Day, written by award-
winning mystery novelist Mark Graham, who was previously under contract at publishing giant Avon Books. This, of course, brings up a very good question: What’s he doing at Invisible College?
Graham certainly has more than one book in him. The prolific novelist is known for his mystery series about Civil War vet Wilton McCleary, and he is undoubtedly the feather in Invisible College’s cap. His most recent mystery, The Black Maria, just netted him this year’s prestigious Edgar Award, which is the highest honor in the mystery-fiction genre. Invisible College can’t touch Avon when it comes to money, power, or reputation in the publishing industry, but Avon wouldn’t touch The Third Day. Because it isn’t a mystery, Avon told Graham it couldn’t market the book.
“I had always wanted to do all kinds of writing, not just one genre. And The Third Day was my way to break out of that mold,” Graham says. “I think I was getting typecast as a mystery writer, and I think [Avon] saw this book and said, ‘This doesn’t really jibe with everything else you’re writing.’ Their attitude was: ‘You’re Mark Graham and you’re making Big Macs, so if we want a Whopper, why would we come to you?’” And it didn’t help matters that the book challenges commonly accepted perceptions about Jesus.
None of the other big-name New York publishers knew what to do with the book, either. Finally, three years after finishing the manuscript, Graham heard about Invisible College through a writer friend who had come across the company’s Web site. Now, Graham is reveling in the attention and amount of control he has at the small press.
“They’re a great alternative to the New York publishing machine,” he says. “Here, I got to do everything; they give you a real hands-on experience for your book.” Graham even got a chance to design the jacket and write the cover copywhich is unheard-of at the big publishing houses. And Mossinger and Reynolds didn’t challenge the author on any changes he wanted to make to his text.
Graham, who has no plans to return to Avon, says that he could get used to this kind of hassle-free working relationship. “Working with Invisible College reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer,” he gushes.
Mossinger and Reynolds are savvy enough to realize that for their small-fish company to make it, they’re going to have to rely on their ingenuity. Right now, for example, they’ve got some pseudo-shady marketing ideas that just might help give Invisible College a little extra push.
“What would be a total choassian thing to do would be to de-shoplift our books,” Reynolds says excitedly. In other words, Mossinger and Reynolds would leave copies of their books on the shelves at Kramer’s, stick others inside larger books, and toss a few on the ledge in the front window. When someone tried to buy one, the cashier would notice it wasn’t in the store’s computer andthey hopehave to enter it and order more.
“We wouldn’t get any money, but it would be really fun,” Reynolds says. It’s not a bad plan, but the two decide that it’s not really something they want to try for the first time with a reporter around. Although, Mossinger points out, “they can’t really arrest you for giving them a book.”
Their other publicity-generating ideas include e-mailing press releases to everyone who sends them spam, printing up bookmarks advertising their books and slipping them into copies of similar tomes on the shelves at stores, and tossing a bookmark in every piece of mail they sendeven, for instance, when they’re just paying the utility bill. “We’re trying a lot of alternative marketing ideas now,” Mossinger says. “And most of them are legal.”
We’re just wrapping up when Mossinger and Reynolds set off my own X-Files-esque paranoia. I give Reynolds my address so he can send me copies of his UFO magazine and explain that I divide my time between D.C. and New York. Then they come at me rapid-fire.
“We know,” says Mossinger.
Reynolds: “We actually did a little search on you.”
Mossinger: “We found tons of stories…and something that said you had gone to Northwestern.”
Reynolds: “We do our homework. And we’re private investigators, by the way. Another side job.”
Mossinger: “If you ever write a book, we’ll publish it.”
Reynolds: “We can do your collected workswe’ve already collected them.”
I laugh nervously. It’s a little spooky. But, then again, maybe that’s just the kind of personal attention Graham was talking about. CP