When Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, “Still Alice,” a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease, she was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents.
Ms. Genova paid $450 to iUniverse to publish the book and sold copies to independent bookstores. A fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, and she eventually sold “Still Alice” for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which released a new edition this month. It had its debut on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on Sunday, at No. 5.
I’ve done the self-publishing thing, and have spent many a night laying awake hoping and praying for the kind of discovery mentioned above, even though I’ve known better since 2004 or so. Self-published fiction never sells well. Never has. Historically, there have been a few flukes, but for the rest of us there’s simply too much stigma and too many poorly-edited, flat out bad DIY novels out there to let anyone take us seriously. The general consensus is that POD and self-publishing tools are good for either mainstream authors who already have a large following and who are interested in getting their backlog into print—or for naive hobbyists (let’s face it, if you’re an author who publishes his own books, no one is ever going to consider you more than a hobbyist, regardless of how many months or years went into your work) who imagine themselves somehow succeeding where many, many others have failed.
Okay. Enough pessimism. There is a bright side to all of this. Twenty years ago the only shot for a no-name fiction writer without connections was the slush pile (and this was before the convenience of e-mail). Today you’ve got computers in every home, desktop publishing software, printing / distribution services, and the Web. The odds may not be much better, but the paradigm has shifted. Using a music industry analogy: a self-published book is your demo, a sample—a teaser to get the big boys’ attention. Instead of mailing your demo to New York, you set up a Web site, you get people to visit and comment on how much they absolutely love your work. You can’t simply have lunch with a reputable agent, so you set fire to yourself and do a little Look At Me! dance in the hopes of attracting attention before your heat suit melts. If it works, they come to you. If not, you’ve got a following that very well might stick around for your next demo.
Now, where did I put my matches?