In 2011, William Sirls signed up with WestBow Press, the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson, to publish his first novel, The Reason. After going through the editorial and production process, he had 100 copies printed 90 days before the official publication date that September, giving away 35 to family and friends and sending 65 to churches to ask for reader feedback. Expecting maybe 10 responses, instead Sirls received more than 200. WestBow publishing director Pete Nikolai gave a galley to Thomas Nelson’s receptionist Marjo Meyers, who he knew was a voracious reader of Christian fiction. She raved about it to Nikolai and to Allen Arnold, then Nelson’s fiction publisher. The rest is history: Sirls was offered a multibook contract with Thomas Nelson, which published The Reason on September 4, 2012.

But before the dream came the nightmare. As a senior v-p of a large investment firm, Sirls says, “I was one person on Sunday as I sat in church, but another Monday to Saturday, when I was not an exemplary human being.” Finally, the disconnect became too much, and in 2006 Sirls turned himself in to federal prosecutors. “I basically blew the whistle on myself. I was hurting a lot of good people, and it had to stop.” Tried and convicted of money laundering and wire fraud, in 2007 Sirls was sentenced to federal prison.

“It’s the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says now. “Most of us don’t make time for God. In prison I was forced to slow down and think about my faith, and I saw what was important—forgiveness, grace, patience, and faith.”

The Reason had its genesis before these events. Sirls had gone through a divorce, and his daughter had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. While at the hospital where his daughter was being treated, he saw a couple with their cancer-stricken son. The boy smiled at his parents, the parents smiled back, “and there was such love there,” says Sirls. “I knew then my problems were not as bad as I thought.” That encounter became the inspiration for the novel Sirls wrote that year. “I wrote it for fun, I didn’t think it would ever be published,” he says. It featured characters based on the boy and his doctor, as well as “a magical character who came along to fix people’s problems,” says Sirls.

As his Christian faith deepened during his 29 months in prison, Sirls rewrote the original version of The Reason. The central characters—the boy with cancer and the oncologist who treated him—remained the same, but “the magical character became spiritual,” he says—a carpenter, a prophetic or Jesus-like figure, who worked at the hospital where the boy was being treated. It is a story of faith and second chances.

Sirls says people had suggested he write a memoir about his own experiences, but “we can go through something that’s life-changing for us, but [it's] not as interesting to others as we might think.” He decided fiction was a more accessible medium for communicating his themes of grace and redemption.

The Reason has sold 50,000 copies in its first year, and, says Katie Bond, director of marketing and publicity for fiction, “It’s a very respectable performance for a debut—we’ve been very pleased. It’s clear this story has found a really supportive audience, and we expect it to continue to sell well.” Sirls’s contract with Nelson is for two books, with an option for a third. His second novel, The Sinners’ Garden, releases in December; “it’s also about second chances,” Sirls says, “and about how miracles can happen today.”

Sirls says working with WestBow was “awesome.” Alan Bower, publisher and director of channel sales for WestBow at Author Solutions, “gave me an understanding of the entire publishing process and what avenues were best to get the book out there.”

His advice to authors planning to self-publish? “Do your homework and choose the right company. Set realistic goals. Don’t discount the value of editing—it’s huge. Start building your platform now, before you even write the book. Read and write a LOT. Be cognizant of distribution—that’s big. Figure out how to differentiate yourself from the thousands of other books out there. And get your book into the hands of the right people.” His goal as an author is to “write about relatable characters in stories that help readers come away feeling closer to God.”

Sirls is clearly not hesitant about promotion. Though Nelson advised him that book tours are not cost effective for new authors, he embarked on one last November through January in Ohio and several Southern states, with signings at Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million stores as well as Christian retailers, including Parable, Family Christian, and Lifeway outlets. He also spoke at churches and libraries along the way. “I don’t really remember how many stops there were,” he says. “I just loaded copies into the back of my truck and tried to get them into as many people’s hands as possible.”