The 1,001 Book Project: A True Story
By JON PAPERNICK
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
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.