Little is more validating for indie authors than seeing their books displayed prominently on bookstore shelves—but not too many bricks-and-mortar stores are willing to take a chance on unvetted authors. A previous book deal, word-of-mouth recommendations, and indie bookstore connections helped the writer Adam Pelzman, who this year self-published his second book, a literary fish-out-of-water story called The Papaya King. Pelzman is the author of Troika, which was traditionally published through Amy Einhorn Books (an imprint of Penguin) in 2014.
“There’s a terrific independent bookstore outside of Philadelphia called Wellington Square Bookshop. When Troika came out, they were incredibly supportive,” Pelzman says. In fact, in 2014, owner Sam Hankin read Troika, fell in love with it, and invited Pelzman to be a guest on his podcast for book enthusiasts, the Avid Reader. So, after self-publishing The Papaya King, Pelzman figured he’d take a chance and reach out to Hankin— maybe he’d be willing to read it. “He got back to me a few weeks later with a surprising response: he ordered 100 copies!”
The Exton, Pa., bookstore has a section devoted solely to indie authors, runs writing workshops for aspiring writers, and even selects indie books for the store’s book clubs. “It can be tough with local authors. But it’s kind of worth it.... You’re helping everyone lift themselves by their own bootstraps,” Hankin says.
Hankin says he is lucky that he is able to carefully curate the store’s selection and to support indie writers in the process. “I have the luxury of taking the time to read their books,” he says. He even invites select self-published writers to hold events at the store, with one caveat: “I always tell them to bring their friends and family, because there’s no telling how many people will show up.”
As a small independent bookstore, Wellington Square has welcomed many authors through its doors and to the Avid Reader, which Hankin operates alongside producer Rebecca Albright. “We had Gillian Flynn before Gone Girl,” Hankin says. Other past guests on the podcast include Isabel Allende, Rivka Galchen, Paul Harding, and David Mitchell. Hankin focuses on a work’s exceptional qualities and merit rather than its publishing platform, and he frequently carries promising indie books to other area bookstores—as he has done with The Papaya King. “If I think this should belong to the world, it’s worth sending it into the world,” Hankin says.
Pelzman, who traces much of his writerly inspiration to the works of Russian authors, is candid about self-publishing The Papaya King. Despite glowing reviews for Troika, which was named to the Indie Next List, and the fact that the Italian rights were sold to a publisher in Milan, “the book was a disappointment from a commercial standpoint,” he says. “The novel just never got traction with readers, and it’s hard to say why.”
The inevitabilities and uncertainties of the market drove Pelzman to take the helm himself. “It was a painful realization, but, once I came to terms with the fact that many doors were now closed to me, or only slightly ajar, I decided to self-publish The Papaya King,” he says.“Of all the books I’d written over the years, this was the novel that I was most proud of—and it was important to me that the book be published and read.
But self-publishing comes with its own learning curve. Pelzman sought out the expertise of those who have trod that path before. “I reached out to Jane Friedman—who is one of the leading experts on self-publishing,” he says. Friedman guided Pelzman through the process of creating a professional product, from copyediting to cover design and distribution.
Ultimately, Pelzman found self-publishing to be empowering. He was even able to select a cover designer, consulting with more than one before landing on the perfect design. “In short, I went from being the author on Troika to being author, creative director, and publisher on The Papaya King,” he says.
Though rejection, pain, and disappointment are often among the only certainties in the life of a writer, those slings and arrows also inform the texture of Pelzman’s work. “One topic that I seem to keep coming back to in my novels is the effect of trauma on our development, our personalities, and the decisions we make,” he says. “I guess I’m fascinated with the long-term impact of these wounds.”
Thanks to the attention from the indie bookstore community, Pelzman’s self-published novel is finding and resonating with readers. The Papaya King is an upcoming selection for Wellington Square’s book club for fiction readers, and Pelzman will be speaking on a panel at the store in 2020. Perhaps most meaningful for him, just inside the doors at Wellington Square, is a display of pristine copies of The Papaya King, waiting to be discovered.