RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The publishing industry has long turned its nose up at self-published books: vanity projects that couldn't make it in the big leagues. Ah, now the Internet and e-books have given self-publishing a little more respect. Plus, here and there, a self-published book has turned into such a success story that no one in the book business can ignore it.
"The Lace Reader," a new novel by Brunonia Barry, is such a book. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story behind the story.
LYNN NEARY: "The Lace Reader" is full of the kind of plot twists that readers love to dissect. Its heroine, Towner Whitney, comes from a family of strong women who are able to read the future in delicate works of lace.
This psychic practice, is of course, a fiction, a product of the imagination of author Brunonia Barry
BRUNONIA BARRY: Well, I believe that I dreamed it up, actually. I had a dream that I saw a future event in a piece of lace, and it came true the next day.
NEARY: If Barry had been able to see the future of her first novel, she probably wouldn't have believed it. In fact, Barry says, if it weren't for her husband, Gary Ward, the book might still be sitting in a drawer. He believed in the book, and he believed they could publish it themselves.
Unlike some authors who try self-publishing, Barry and her husband had their own business, which served as a base for the venture.
BARRY: Gary and I were publishers of software. We had a games company. And we thought, we can do this, we're already publishers. It's kind of a laugh now, because you run into so many things you never anticipated.
GARY WARD: Yeah, we were emboldened by our ignorance. We've learned an awful lot, but we knew just enough to get going, but not too much to stop us.
NEARY: Barry and Ward began by thinking local. "The Lace Reader" is set in Salem, Massachusetts, where they now make their home. This picturesque seaside town steeped in history plays a major role in the story. They knew people in the area would be intrigued by that, so they began asking the advice of local bookstores.
BARRY: We actually started with book clubs, which was kind of an interesting thing. We went to a few of the independent book stores and asked them to give us recommendations of book clubs who would be interested to read a beginning writer, a fledgling writer, and the first two book clubs got just straight pages of the book.
WARD: In a box.
BARRY: In a box.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WARD: Yeah, we didn't have any, you know, real printed books yet.
BARRY: That's right.
HILLARY EMERSON LAW: It was very smart. It's very revolutionary. I have never myself known an author to come in and give me an early draft of the book and say I really want to know what you think.
NEARY: Hilary Emerson Lay is manager of the Spirit of '76 bookstore in Marblehead, Massachusetts. She says Barry genuinely interested in hearing how people reacted to the book. It was flattering, says Lay, and it generated a lot of interest. Book clubs have the power to make a book these days, says Lay, and "The Lace Reader" is made for book clubs
LAY: It's one of those books that you finish, and you have to turn around to someone who's read the book and talk to them about it. It has a very compelling ending that I can't really talk about, but it's something that you finish, and it just, it makes you re-evaluate the whole book when you come to the end of it - so you're dying to talk to someone else who's read it.
NEARY: Eventually, Barry and Ward printed 2,000 copies of the "The Lace Reader." Word of mouth began spreading to book clubs around the country, and local bookstores talked it up. Booksellers also helped Barry and Ward make important contacts in the publishing world, which led them to a publicist who got the book to the influential Publishers Weekly.
"The Lace Reader got a starred review in PW, and the larger world of publishing and film began to take notice. Rebecca Oliver, a literary agent with Endeavor talent agency, got a copy of the book.
REBECCA OLIVER: I started reading it at my desk. And I think that, especially in book publishing, the thought of self- published - there's sort of an idea of what self-published means, and that's the author has probably tried to sell the book previously to New York publishers and they're selling it out of the trunk of their car now. And you assume that there's a certain quality, unfortunately, to that work. And when I started reading it, it was so clear that this book was different.
NEARY: Oliver became Brunonia Barry's agent and put the book out for auction in last fall. Before the bidding even got off the ground, Oliver turned down a seven-figure offer, an offer Barry was ready to take.
BARRY: The first bid came in, and Gary and I said yes, we'll take it, great, and she said I don't think so. So sit down and wait.
NEARY: Oliver was convinced the book could bring in a higher bid.
OLIVER: You don't do something like that lightly, but I think at that point, it was apparent that the people who were reading this book were falling in love with it, and it just felt like we've got to see it through to the end.
NEARY: In the end, three major publishing houses were bidding on the book, and Brunonia Barry was able to choose the one she liked best. She signed with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, for a deal that is reportedly worth more than $2 million.
BARRY: I don't think we still have realized what has happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BARRY: It's kind of pinch me, wake me up, but don't want me because I must be dreaming
WARD: I remember walking around our living room when we heard the final number, just putting my hand on my forehead, sort of stumbling around saying that just happened to us? I mean, it was just incredible.
NEARY: In addition to the original deal, the rights to the book have also been sold in more than 20 countries, and there's interest in making a film. Barry says the whole experience is a fantasy-come-true. But Ward cautions their experience with self-publishing isn't typical. Some of the old prejudices are fading he says, but it's still a tough road.
OLIVER: The process is a little more democratic today. You do have the opportunity to take a book that you can have edited and you can have printed and take it to the marketplace and show that there's interested in the topic. But it's awfully, awfully competitive, and I just wouldn't want anyone to spend their life savings or anything like that, you know, saying I'm going to get "The Lace Reader" type deal.
NEARY: Luck, says Ward, played a big role in their success, and just like a delicate piece of lace, the whole thing could have unraveled if even one threat was out of place. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And you can read an excerpt from Brunonia Barry's self-published novel, "The Lace Reader," at NPR.org.
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