The unturned pages said it all. Not only had another major publisher turned down E. Lynn Harris's manuscript, the editor hadn't even bothered to read it through. It was 1991, and the then-36-year-old African-American author had failed for the 20th time to sell his novel "Invisible Life" to a traditional literary house. "I was told that there's no market for black fiction," Harris says of his story about a Manhattan lawyer wrestling with his sexuality. Now a creative-writing instructor at the University of Arkansas, Harris took matters into his own hands. He self-published his book at a cost of $15,000, a fortune for someone failing to make payments on the Toyota Corolla he planned to use as a rolling bookstore. But by personally peddling the book to a mainly black readership at beauty salons, sorority houses and Southern book clubs, he quickly sold 5,000 copies (too late for the Corolla, which was repossessed soon afterward). Numbers talk, and less than six months later Doubleday, a venerable mainstream publishing house, signed a publishing contract with Harris, who has since written eight best sellers (that's in addition to "Invisible Life," which has sold more than a half -million copies).
For decades, in a risk-averse book industry looking for surefire hits, authors like Harris have gone it alone in the grueling parallel universe of vanity presses, local bookstores, and specialty conferences, where writers double as one-person publicity departments. Now help may be at hand. In October, San Francisco-based Chronicle Books plans to unveil what it says is a pioneering "mutual referral" deal with the Silicon Valley self-publisher Blurb, known for its print-on-demand online bookstore and glossy photography books. Chronicle will refer unwanted authors to Blurb, who will return an undisclosed cut of the earnings generated from the new accounts. Blurb says that while it's not uncommon for self-publishers to sell promising manuscripts up the chain to larger publishers, this is the first deal to send submissions in the other direction: from the discard pile of a traditional publishing house to an online bookstore where authors pay to have their books printed and sent off into the real world.
It looks to be a win-win arrangement: Chronicle gets a "talent lab" where it can watch for new work bubbling up in popularity, Blurb gains early access to a market of spurned wordsmiths, and authors achieve a place on the radar of a hip midsize publishing company with the resources to turn a Web sensation into a national best seller. "We'd love to be the Sundance Film Festival of the book world," says Blurb CEO Eileen Gittins, referring to the annual Utah film festival known for launching small-budget films into larger markets. All one needs to enter the festival fray is (alas) a rejection letter from Chronicle and money for Blurb, which offers free design software and charges clients for each book printed at rates ranging from $12.95 for a 40-page trade paperback to $159.95 for a 360-page coffee-table hardcover.
Among the writers and artists most likely to benefit from this new arrangement are people exactly like Harris: African-Americans, first-time authors and those who write books deemed too narrowly focused to woo a large audience. In essence, people the industry is hesitant to take on without an existing sales record, says Calvin Reid, news editor at Publisher's Weekly. "Self-publishing has allowed African-American authors to demonstrate sales that over time expand the range of [major imprint] books on the black experience," he says. It's a formula that has worked at least once before with urban fiction, a genre that only hit the mainstream after succeeding on the streets. Originating as typewritten photocopies sold from the trunks of cars, the stories—typically a blend of erotica and crime, written in the blunt patois of popular rap—now appear as shiny paperbacks on the lists of major publishing houses and the shelves of national bookstores.
But not everyone is sanguine about the new deal, which they say will add one more mile of desert between authors and their first paychecks. "It's to Chronicle's benefit to … force authors to prove their sales before swooping in to sign them," says Tina Ansa, head of Down South Publishing, which she founded in 2004 to help black authors. "It's not enough that we write the books. Now we're being asked to shake our asses, too," she says. Chronicle points out that there's no guarantee that an author will come back to them, and says the agreement is primarily designed to help writers. "It's an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us," says Sarah Williams, Chronicle's executive director of business development. The question is, what kind of future would it be if every publisher copied Chronicle's new model? On the one hand, deals like this seem to create conflicts of interest. On the other, it may be the only way authors can finally move as Harris did: from an "Invisible Life" to a life most visible.