Hilary Thayer Hamann self-published her novel with the help of her former husband's print and design company, consciously choosing to forego the typical path of agents, editors, and salespeople. The book found a disparate but fervent audience and started winning awards. A film producer inquired about movie rights and encouraged Hamann to publish it more broadly, so eventually she signed with a literary agent who sold the novel to a division of Random House. Anthropology of an American Girl fits into a small but growing category of self-published books that first found their own underground niche readerships and then, once their literary merits had been proven, were bought by mainstream publishers and re-marketed to wider audiences. You've probably heard of a few of these books.
Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon, the first in the Inheritance series of fantasy novels for young adults, when he was a fifteen-year-old homeschooler. His family collaborated to self-publish the book, then spent a year promoting the book at libraries, bookstores, and schools. On a family vacation, Carl Hiaasen's stepson read the book and just like that, Hiaasen's publisher, Knopf, called the Paolinis to ask if they could reissue the book. Two more books and a movie later, Paolini is a household name to many young readers, with the fourth and final book in the Inheritance series due in November 2011. (Interesting to note is that Hamann homeschools two of her three children, though her own book so lingeringly observes the rites and rituals of public school.)
When Brunonia Barry finished a draft of The Lace Reader, her husband encouraged her to publish it herself, using his software publishing business as a launch pad. First, she circulated copies of the unbound manuscript to bookbuyers at independent bookstores and book clubs in Salem, Massachusetts, where the book is set, and she incorporated readers' comments into the next draft. Then she and her husband printed 2000 copies of the book, which began to sell via word of mouth. It wasn't long before Barry had signed with an agent, who then staged an auction that reportedly earned the author more than $2 million, not to mention foreign rights and film rights.
Mark Danielewski serialized his postmodern horror novel, House of Leaves, on the internet while he was writing it, which is ironic because the 700-page book could not exist on a computer screen; its deeply unconventional structure, with devices like upside-down type and footnotes within footnotes, makes specific use of the dimensionality of the book in the reader's hands. But the novel gained such a wide online cult following that, when Danielewski eventually signed a publishing contract with Pantheon for a modest advance, he was able to defend his vision against the rampages of his more conventional editors. "The publishers wanted it to be a 300 page trade paperback," he recalled, "and I was saying No, that's not the way it's going because I know there is this old guy in Norway that's reading this and a cop in the South reading it.'" In order to ensure the printed book looked like his ragged manuscript pages, Danielewski worked with the publisher for three weeks to typeset the pages.
Richard Paul Evans wrote The Christmas Box in 1993 for his daughters, initially printing just twenty books at a local copy shop. Those books got passed from reader to reader until Evans raised money for further printings from a Utah senator whom his publicity firm had just helped get elected. As the book continued to sell, New York publishers fiercely battled for the rights, and Simon & Schuster prevailed by offering Evans $4.25 million for hardcover rights alone. Evans kept the paperback rights, which led to the unprecedented scenario of the same book at the top of the bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback. Then Evans took his franchise one step further by writing another book, The Christmas Box Miracle, a memoir about the events in his life which led up to The Christmas Box and the effect that the first story had in the lives of his readers. That book also topped the bestseller lists.
As a recent article in the New York Times Magazine reported, the publishing industry's hesitant entrance into the digital age has meant fewer books are published through mainstream channels, and more bestsellers rise from the otherwise unread piles of self-published books. With websites like lulu.com ready to turn your novel into a slick hardbound book, what are you waiting for?
This article was originally published in June 2010, and has been updated for the
June 2011 paperback release.
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