Not so long ago, Ed Medina was studying in the library of Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., when he noticed a peculiar package on a nearby table. It appeared at first to be the pieces of a abandoned essay, but when Mr. Medina peered more closely, he saw two lines of thick black printing: "Please Read!!! Do Not Discard."
"I was mostly suspicious," Medina explained later. "Like, is this for real? But the concept was too intriguing for me to ignore it completely."
In 2002, Mr. Heppner was catapulted into the limelight when his debut novel, "Egg's Code," was nominated by both The Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly as one of the best books of the year. A second novel, "Pike's Folly," also fared well – Esquire magazine gushed over it – and Heppner seemed poised for a successful literary career.
But by 2007, Heppner, who now teaches at Emerson College in Boston, was having trouble placing his work, and his output had slowed to a trickle of short stories. "I was frustrated," he remembers. "No one was biting anymore. I felt out of the scene. I wondered for a while there if I should just give up."
Part of the problem, he knew, was the shrinking demand for literary fiction. Sales across the country were slumping, independent bookstores were shuttering, and most publishers had not yet discovered how to best reach a Web audience. Still, Heppner had been a writer for 15 years, "and if you've been doing something for 15 years," he says with a laugh, "it's hard to stop."
Eventually, he finished "Man Talking," a first-person novella. The themes were simple and ageless: Why do we tell each other stories? And what do those stories mean?
Heppner thought about shipping the book off to publishers, but he worried that it might not be marketable. "It was a fairly substantial amount of work that I had put in – maybe eight months in all," he estimates. "I thought, 'Might as well put it up online.' Readers could get it for free, and at the same time, I might get a little bit of attention."
Some 4,000 readers did eventually click through the site, and Heppner garnered some blog buzz, enough to get him thinking big. A few months afterward, Heppner contacted his friend Jen Hyde, the founder of Brooklyn's Small Anchor Press.
The idea was relatively simple: Publish a limited-edition run of a second novella, "Talking Man," which was loosely related to "Man Talking." Then release a third novella, "Man," to random locations across the United States, with the help of a network of friends and acquaintances.
Heppner, in other words, hoped to explore three avenues of distribution: online, with "Man Talking"; through a small press, with "Talking Man"; and haphazardly, with "Man."
"I was very curious about how stories get into the world," he says. "Man Talking," and "Man," for instance, are both largely concerned with matters of communication – among peers, family members, friends, and strangers. "What is the relationship between readers and writers, and consumers and producers?" he adds. "I wanted the way I presented these novellas to be another layer of commentary."
Ms. Hyde was enthusiastic. "I was fascinated," she says. "It became this great experiment. With 'Man,' we said, 'Let's send these out into the world, and let's have absolutely no expectations for it,' which is kind of awesome, when you think about it, because it's something Mike's worked on, and something close and personal. And by virtue of making these copies, you're almost giving it no monetary value."
In the end, Hyde and Heppner settled on 500 copies of "Man" and sent stacks out scattershot to college campuses, coffee shops, gyms, offices, and airports. Each edition was bundled with a one-page cover letter, which informed readers of the "Man" project and asked that readers send comments and questions to Heppner. (The book has never been distributed to bookstores, and Heppner says he has no plans to release it that way.)
"You hold in your hands a copy of 'Man,' the third in a series of four novellas," the letter read. "Please do one of the following: (a) read it, (b) leave it where you found it, or (c) give it to a friend."
Among the recipients of "Man" was Gina Hoch-Stall, a student of dance and psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "I found the story quite touching," Ms. Hoch-Stall wrote to Heppner. "As a choreographer I am often trying to use gestures, memories, and intimate details to bring people into my dances; I feel like this is what made 'Man' successful."
Meanwhile, Heppner and Hyde had released "Man Talking" in September, to a good deal of acclaim. ("Talking Man" will be released this month in a trade edition.) A fourth installment, "Talking," is planned for a March release, although Heppner is keeping mum on the plot and distribution details. He will say only that he's "extremely excited."
"I've learned that no one is ever going to say thank you," Heppner says of the writing life. "You have to do what you want to do, and you'll get compensation or you won't. It's worth doing, or it's not."
In this case, he adds, "it has been worth doing."