In 2008, Sergio De La Pava self-published his first novel, A Naked Singularity. It was a rollicking, looping tome, clocking in at nearly 700 pages, that followed the exploits and divergent ruminations of Casi, a young public defender based in New York City. Since then, the book was picked up for publication by the University of Chicago Press and this year was given the Robert W. Bingham Prize given by the PEN Literary Awards.
For a self-published novel as unconventional as A Naked Singularity to become such a success is a bit of a surprise, no less to De La Pava himself, who after finishing his first book “had no strategies, no expectations.” His only interest then was moving on to his second book, Personae, self-published in 2011, and traditionally published by the University of Chicago last October. But unlike many authors who’ve self-published their way to success, De La Pava isn’t one to dwell on the business details.
How did you self-publish your first book A Naked Singularity?
Our decision to self-publish A Naked Singularity happened about six years ago. There weren’t e-books or Kindles and at the time [self-publishing happened] through Print on Demand, whereby the book was created if someone ordered it. It was on Amazon and you had the option of ordering the hard cover or the soft cover.
What was that process like?
I mean, there’s really nothing to it besides you make a deal with this company. They don’t do anything that I can tell in terms of enhancing your chances of selling books. They basically just want to take the money. The one thing they were offering besides creating the object of the book was distribution. They could have the book available on things like Amazon so people could in essence order it, but, of course, there was no actual publicity.
Did you do anything to help promote A Naked Singularity?
Once we self-published the book, I got to work on a second book, but didn’t give [publicity] much thought. My wife, in about late 2008, started sending out review copies and over the course of the next couple of years a few reviewers commented on the book and that eventually came to the attention of the University of Chicago. So, if you want to call it publicity, I was fortunate that my wife was willing to identify people who might be receptive to [A Naked Singularity] and send review copies out en masse, so it eventually caught fire a bit.
How did she get reviewers to read a 700-page self-published book?
She’s very knowledgeable, and remains very knowledgeable, about current fiction and people writing about it in different magazines. There was absolutely a reluctance to review a self-published book. But what happens is it’s like anything else. One person reviews it and that breaks down the reluctance a bit. The next person who reviews it is essentially responding in some ways to an earlier review.
Was there a particular review that marked the watershed?
In late 2010, a reviewer by the name of Scott Bryan Wilson reviewed it for Scott Esposito’s publication The Quarterly Conversation. That review was the jumping-off point, and from that moment forward reviews kept coming pretty rapidly and they were generally very favorable, so that created momentum.
Did you notice an immediate affect on readership?
Once that review came out in 2010, we had a pretty large spike in readership, a large spike in sales of the self-published edition. When University of Chicago Press published [A Naked Singularity] in spring of 2012, that created another spike in readers.
Many successful self-published novels adhere to conventional plot structures and have unadorned prose; your books don’t. To what extent did that limit your audience?
It’s not a perfect marriage. The kind of novels I write don’t lend themselves to a lightening-in-the-bottle type situation. Most self-published books are genre-y works that are kind of predictable in their pace and development. Criticism is far less important in [an environment] where people don’t pay attention to [reviews] and look for other things that might appeal to them. The uncommon nature of A Naked Singularity was a barrier, one that had to be overcome. It was not a positive thing if what you’re looking for is conventional success.
You self-published A Naked Singularity after it was rejected by numerous agents tied to the world of the traditional publishing houses. Did you repeat that route with your second self-published novel Personae?
With Personae I didn’t try at all to publish it through conventional means. Personae is in many ways more unconventional and difficult than A Naked Singularity, so I didn’t anticipate a groundswell of people helping me publish that novel either. I didn’t have interest in finding out. The world of publishing doesn’t intrigue me. It’s a necessary evil that I have to tolerate to do what I really enjoy, which is writing novels. I had gotten through a psychological barrier with self-publication and at that point I’d grown to enjoy certain aspects of it.
What was that psychological barrier?
Look, there’s a rather pointed prejudice against the quality of self-published work. I was certainly aware of it in 2008, and it persists in a slightly lesser form today. But when you decide you’re going to self-publish a 700-page novel, you have to be prepared for complete obscurity. That’s certainly what I was preparing for, but things broke a certain way and that didn’t happen. What I value as a novelist and writer is creating exactly what I want to create...And for that reason, self-publishing was a more viable option.
You mentioned that the world of publishing doesn’t intrigue you. Why is that?
I gather from your question you’re not referring to something like the University of Chicago but the large publishers in New York. I don’t detect the greatest concern with art. Maybe I’m wrong. There are always exceptions. I’ve encountered some of them with my relationship with the University of Chicago. They seem to be supportive of me as an artist and less concerned with the day-to-day business aspects of it. It’s a university press, a not-for-profit press, and they don’t generally publish novels. Self-publishing my first two novels initially at any rate -- they’re now both out by the University of Chicago -- just felt like the right decision at the time.
Did you do learn anything from A Naked Singularity’s success that helped you promote Personae?
To the extent I did anything different with Personae, I put even less effort into spreading the word about it. I didn’t send any review copies anywhere that I’m aware of. At this point, enough people had spoken about A Naked Singularity that I figured they’d be curious about the next novel. And here it is. We certainly didn’t engage in any conventional publicity or attempts to put it in any particular person’s hands. At some point, A Naked Singularity was a success for University of Chicago and naturally they offered to publish Personae.
So no lessons?
The self-publishing thing is not conducive to what we call conventional success. It’s not a situation where we’ve learned A, B, and C with respect to A and S and we can now make this [next book] a huge success. I tend to focus more on what the novel is, if it accomplishes what I set out to accomplish from an artistic standpoint. The rest of the stuff, well, it can go either way and it’s not a great concern of mine, to be honest.
Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York.