Every so often a self-publishing Cinderella story makes headlines. In 2003 it was a home-schooled 20-year-old, Christopher Paolini, who sold his first novel about a dragon to Knopf, and in 2006 Kathleen McGowan got a seven-figure deal from S&S for her Da Vinci Code—esque Mary Magdalene series. And in the coming months, look for more self-publishing success stories, as the big houses get behind several writers who took the DIY route. So, are publishers becoming more open to self-published authors, or are self-published authors becoming savvier publishers?
This month, two originally self-published titles are making headlines. The Shack—William P. Young's feel-good Christian novel that sold more than a million copies before Hachette signed on to copublish it—debuted in its trade edition at No. 1 on the New YorkTimes list on June 8. And, at the end of the month, Morrow will look for similar numbers for The Lace Reader; the imprint paid author Brunonia Barry more than $2 million in a two-book deal and printed 200,000 copies of her debut.
Ben Sevier, a senior editor at Dutton, has noticed that more self-published books are gaining traction. Sevier, who said he's “always looked skeptically on [self-published] submissions,” is singing a different tune these days. Right before BEA, he preempted a self-published techno-thriller called Daemon by a software consultant using the pen name Leinad Zeraus. Sevier signed Zeraus, aka Daniel Suarez, to a two-book deal for what's rumored to be a hefty sum. Sevier, who was immediately taken with the manuscript—he said it “took me two chapters to think I was reading the best high-tech thriller writer since Michael Crichton”—said the experience has been eye-opening: “It proves that great books are slipping through the cracks.”
Great manuscripts aside, Suarez and Barry had more going for them than strong prose. Both had managed to sell more than 1,000 copies on their own; Suarez also got press in Wired and blurbs from Sillicon Alley heavies like Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) and Stewart Brand (creator of The Whole Earth Catalog).
Clare Ferraro at Viking signed neuroscientist and stroke survivor Jill Bolte Taylor, who became an Internet sensation after a snippet of a talk she gave at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference went viral. Taylor had sold nearly 8,000 copies of her clinical survival memoir, which she self-published through Lulu. My Stroke of Insight—which Viking crashed for a May release to coincide with Taylor's Oprah spot—was, Ferraro said, driven by the author's platform more than anything else. “If Jill hadn't had a book, I would have been no less interested in her.”
Agent David Fugate, of LaunchBooks in San Diego, inked a deal for retired professor Dennis Fried largely on the author's impressive self-publishing record. Although Fugate said he found Fried's Memoirs of a Papillon immediately touching and amusing—the book is purportedly the memoir of the author's pooch, Genevieve—he thinks it was the fact that the book had sold 20,000 copies that spurred Simon Spotlight Entertainment to acquire it. The book, due out in hardcover in 2009 as When I Want Your Opinion I'll Bark, benefited from what Fugate calls the “more democratic process” of publishing that exists today. Fugate explained that, with promotion being easier because of the Internet and printing more manageable because of online vanity presses and POD houses, an author can now “prove [his] worth.”
Nonetheless, Fugate warns it isn't easy. He estimates that most editors don't want to hear about a self-published title unless its sales are significant. “Three thousand to 4,000 seems to be the point at which they start to think, okay, this is something valuable.”