Ask The Editor

January 22, 2009

From rejection to self-publishing to bestselling novelist

We keep reading (and hearing from agents, publishers and others in the industry) that it’s more difficult than ever to get a book published by a major publishing house. And that’s not surprising, given the economy in general and the publishing market in particular.

Yet, with increasingly regularity, we read stories such as this one, about a novelist who couldn’t get a literary agent, let alone a publisher, decided to self-publish, and now has a hit.

Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn’t get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn’t get an agent. “I did what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “I queried literary agents. I went to writers’ conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it.” So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.

That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all–and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. “So this is extreme to extreme, right?” Genova says. “This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car.”

Does this mean we should all be self-publishing? No, although it’s easier than ever to do so. What it probably means is that, when literary agents and publishers are too cautious to consider any manuscript that doesn’t scream “bestseller” the minute they read it, lots of potential hits will never get published. And, intrepid authors who have faith in their books, who understand marketing and promotion, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to get those books into the hands of readers, might as well try on their own.

The alternative is that nobody reads what you may have spent years writing.

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