Despite 18 years in book publishing and a spouse as well-connected in the industry as herself, Adrian W. Liang, a romance novelist as well as associate publisher at Seattle book packager Becker & Mayer, found that it was self-publishing that enabled her to be published and helped her land a conventional book deal.

Liang, who writes under the pen name of Adrianne Wood, also happens to be married to Kuo-Yu Liang, v-p, sales and marketing, at Diamond Book Distributors; together the couple can boast of more than 30 years working in book publishing.

Despite what an amateur might think, it turns out that even a hyperconnected book industry power couple can hit a wall when it comes to finding an agent and publisher for a debut publishing deal. Wood, who has worked for Random House and Penguin, writes in the western and contemporary romance genres. While her book publishing experience opened doors, Wood says it didn’t get her any closer to a book deal or even an agent, and after 15 years, multiple unpublished novels and mounting frustration, she decided to self-publish her novels as e-books.

In fact her “agent”—that would be her husband, Kuo-Yu, universally known as Ku—says, “When we started, I thought, ‘I know all the book buyers and editors, this will be easy. I’ll just call them up.’ But I got an education about publishing.” Ku, who also worked at Del Rey and Random House Publisher Services for many years, says the responses were all the same: “not looking for anything new,” “western romance is dead, try writing paranormal.”

“I submitted romances to publishers for 15 years,” says Wood, who initially had no desire to self-publish. “I got some interest, but I never got an offer.” Finally, she said, friends—editors, store buyers, and other book professionals—pointed to the “self-published e-book phenomenon,” and encouraged her to give it a try.

The results of self-publishing were immediate. After releasing two western romance e-books—Unruly Hearts on the Nook and Kindle platforms in late 2011, and Badlands Bride as a Nook exclusive published in January 2012—Wood was able to land a two-book deal with S&S’s Pocket Books imprint to republish Badlands Bride in a new, mass market paperback edition in November, as well as an untitled sequel, to be released in November 2013.

Unruly Hearts was a self-pub learner. Wood says the cover was bad—she designed it herself—and despite getting good reviews and being noted on GoodReads, the novel sold less than 200 copies. For her next e-book, Badlands Bride, she got an art designer friend to do the cover art and offered the book as an exclusive on the Nook. The book was highlighted on the site and took off; selling “several thousand copies” in four days, it was the #1 bestseller on across all platforms. In turn, Badlands Bride helped the sales of Unruly Hearts and eventually helped swing the book deal with Pocket.

Like a lot of self-publishers, Wood says she wanted the prestige of a conventional book deal—not to mention being able to hand over some of the work involved in self-publishing to her new publishers. “We can make more money self-publishing,” Ku says. “It’s not even close. But she wanted a traditional house.” And after proving her novels will sell, Ku said it was relatively easy getting the book deal; “publishers want to remove risk, so once we could show them sales data, it was a no-brainer.”

Wood has wanted to be a novelist since she was a teenager and wrote “sword and sorcery novels and a little romance; I even submitted them to publishers,” she said in a phone interview. After graduating from Middlebury College in 1994, she got her first job in publishing at Faber & Faber and over the years has worked at Random House (Ballantine and Knopf, where she met Ku) and New American Library; after the couple moved to Seattle, she freelanced before joining Becker & Mayer in 2005.

Wood says being an “insider” does have advantages: her publishing friends helped edit the manuscript, worked on layout and design (“covers are important”), and even introduced her to agents. But, she said, “That meant that I got a nice phone call rejection instead of a form letter.” Understanding marketing, Wood says, is also an advantage for professionals, but she emphasized that self-publishing “helps writers get stronger and that helps publishers.”

Ku says the key to self-publishing has been e-books. “Self-publishing print is expensive and a lot of work,” although, he adds, they would have offered POD editions through the Espresso Book Machine—“I’ve got friends working there"—if the Pocket book deal hadn’t come through.

Nevertheless, there are advantages to being a pro: Ku plans to call buyers to alert them to Wood’s new books, and the couple are planning their own marketing promotions along with Pocket’s: “S&S has been very cooperative and pleased that we’re doing so much,” he says. But they also intend to continue to self-publish—Mind Tricks, a paranormal romance, is coming in December. Ku points out that certain aspects of traditional publishing—e-book royalty payments are scheduled the same as for print, every six months, despite no returns and better sales tracking—are just “not acceptable for e-books.”

“We agreed to terms because Adrian wanted the book deal,” he says. “Traditional publishing is for prestige, it gives you credibility and a platform, but self-publishing gives you flexibility and more money, and if you can be successful it gives you leverage for better deals in traditional publishing.”