The 1,001 Book Project: A True Story


When my first collection of short stories, The Ascent of Eli Israel, was published in the summer of 2002, I felt that my writing career was finally ready to bloom. The stories received a glowing full-page review in the New York Times, and elsewhere the press compared me to ascendant young writers such as Nathan Englander and Dara Horn and even old masters, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

To my surprise, over the next several years I found no one willing to publish my first novel, Who by Fire, Who by Blood, which can best be described as equal parts terrorist thriller, love story, and psychological portrait set in pre-9/11 New York, a novel entirely free of comfortable Jewish kitsch, high-concept cleverness, and redemption.

A discouraging round of rejections later, I learned that the major New York publishing houses felt my novel was not only “too prickly,” “too hard-edged,” and “too disturbing,” but also “haunting,” “thoughtful and provocative” and “a remarkable feat of narrative persuasion. ” In the end, it just was not right for any of the editors.

The publishing industry is exactly that, an industry, concerned with the bottom line just like any other industry, and many of these editors had already determined that the book would lose money. I wondered, “How can authors publish daring, frightening art when book editors also must wear the hats of marketer, salesman, and publicist?” I thought of my favorite “prickly” novels: Richard Wright's Native Son and John Fowles’ The Collector, and wondered how these manuscripts would have been received in today's climate.

I've always had an irrational faith in myself as a writer. I'd certainly read countless books that left me shaking my head in dismay, and somehow they saw the light of day. I cut 80 pages of the initial manuscript, and finally found a taker who felt the same way about my novel as I did.

Yes, they are small and yes, they are Canadian, but Exile Editions was excited about my work and quickly put my novel at the top of their fall list of 18 books. Unlike some of the large New York publishers, Exile saw this as a potentially commercial novel that could really get people's attention.

Exile has no publicist, a minuscule advertising budget, and no name recognition in the United States, despite 30 years of publishing quality fiction and poetry in Canada. My agent refused to grant U.S. rights to the publisher, holding out for a taker south of the border. That meant Who by Fire, Who by Blood would have no distribution in the United States. With the bittersweet signing of the amended contract, I realized that my work was just beginning if I wanted my book to be read broadly.

The owner of my local independent bookstore thought The Ascent of Eli Israel was one of the best story collections he had ever read, and helped make it the store's best-selling book during its first two years of business, simply by recommending it to his customers.

I understood the amazing potential of hand selling, and approached him with the idea of trying to sell 1,001 copies of Who by Fire before publication, with his store as the sole United States outlet. We had five months, and it seemed manageable to completely outsell the first modest printing of my novel before publication. Our goal was not only to sell books, but also to illustrate the potential strength of independent bookstores as tastemakers over impersonal corporate bookselling giants.

I immediately hit up family, friends, former students, and acquaintances, asking them to pre-order my first novel with the hopes that a quick start might garner some media attention which would in turn sell more books, and, we hoped, draw more attention to the novel, believing that success bred more success. My website's email list had over 400 subscribers, and I blasted the list several times in quick succession, hawking my own book like some virtual door-to-door salesman. Why should hand selling be limited by geography? We were limited only by our own energy and will.

Before long, we had sold nearly 200 copies of the novel. Publishers Weekly and the Boston Globe and about a half-dozen blogs had written favorably about the 1,001 Book Project. New York publishers started calling my agent requesting to see the book, which was still in the process of being proofread. Could it really be this easy, I wondered?

In a word: No.

As the second month rolled on, I noticed that there was still no sign anywhere in the store announcing the 1,001 Book Project to potential customers. When I asked the bookstore owner if he was calling other media sources, he said he was waiting to hear back from NPR, his own personal White Whale. His website was never updated to give it the more professional look that we had discussed. When he miscounted the amount of books sold by nearly a hundred, I knew we were in trouble. We were no longer partners. I had become his manager, and nothing good could come of that. By mid-summer, his store was closed as often as it was open and he stopped returning my emails.

A first novel only comes along once in a lifetime, if you are lucky, and my anger was boiling out of every pore of my body. For some reason, he was sabotaging the project, and I couldn't figure out why. What was I to do?

I sent my wife to talk to him since she studied conflict resolution in graduate school. She returned home with a written plan and a promise that everything would be on track by the next day.

That night, I received a full-page screed from the owner, emailed to my wife and agent, railing against them, claiming utter disappointment in the way in which the project was handled and that not enough deference had been shown towards him as he attempted to "bring about a revolutionary change in the publishing world." In that instant, the project and the friendship was over.

We failed to reach our goal, but made it a third of the way, which isn’t bad, considering these sales were all made before publication.

I always knew that being a writer was a solitary pursuit. Now I know that the creative aspect of being a writer is only part of the job and that the other part, getting the book into readers’ hands, never ends.