The Exception vs. The Rule
Sara Nelson talks about the odds of finding literary success after being turned down by most major publishers.
Rejected by more than 20 major publishers, Sharpe’s [The Sleeping Father] his first two, Stories from the Tube and Nothing Is Terrible, were published by Villard, which passed on this one was bought by tiny, Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press for an advance of $1,000. The publisher, which employs five people in various part-time arrangements, has no publicity or marketing budget to speak of. What’s more, the book is a paperback original and paperbacks traditionally get next to no space in rapidly shrinking review vehicles. Still, The Sleeping Father received a full-page rave in The New York Times Book Review and four weeks in a coveted “And Bear in Mind” slot and a mention, also in The Times, by the novelist Anne Tyler. The novelist Susan Isaacs chose it for the February Today show Book Club pick, and as of last week, it has gone into a third printing, bringing the total to almost 40,000. As of this writing, it’s the 548th best-selling book on Amazon.com.
This kind of success almost never happens in contemporary publishing. While many paperback originals Downtown Press Chick-lit series, for example sell reasonably well, I can think of only two that broke out: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which spawned a whole genre, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize. And while out-of-the-mainstream publishers occasionally produce a best-seller like Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Time Traveler’s Wife, most of the books you know about come from the same old New York biggies.