Traditional book publishing hasn’t collapsed yet, but you can see signs of erosion everywhere.
The latest indication comes from the literary novelist Jon Clinch, who’s turning his back on the industry that helped make his name.
His first novel, “Finn,” about Huckleberry Finn’s dad, was published by Random House and chosen by The Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2007. Three years later, he published “Kings of the Earth” and received more great reviews.
But like so many novelists who are lucky enough to earn critical praise, sales didn’t follow, and Random House lost interest. So naturally, Clinch began thinking about vampires.
“I was watching this whole spate of really serious literary guys crossing over to genre fiction with monsters in it,” he says from his home in Ludlow, Vt. Wondering if he could make the transition himself, he started working on a science fiction novel, and that inspired him to consider an even bolder experiment.
“I’d heard so many people talking about the whole self-publishing movement — how great it was to be liberated and how great the numbers were. So I thought, why don’t I put this little book out there and just see what happens if I do it myself without my name attached. If it goes someplace, then that will give me the information I need to know if this brave new world is the right course for me.”
Thirty-five years in advertising convinced him he could design and market a book without anybody’s help. Using Amazon’s CreateSpace, he posted “What Came After” under the pen name Sam Winston in December 2011 (paperback, $14.95; e-book, $3.99).
Only a few close friends knew who Sam Winston really was. But “Sam” started tweeting about “What Came After.” Then Clinch retweeted some of Sam’s tweets. The effect was negligible. “I’m not much of a tweeter,” Clinch confesses, “and neither is Sam, as you might imagine.” But then he also started a Facebook page for Sam, and soon readers began “liking” him. Whenever people sent messages, Sam would ask them to write reviews of “What Came After” on Amazon. More followed. At one point, the book rose to No. 8 on Amazon’s science fiction list. The novelist Caroline Leavitt wrote to ask if she could interview Sam for her blog.
Sam Winston — the man with no publisher and no background — sold almost 10,000 copies.
That surprising success has now given Clinch the courage to drop the pen name and publish his upcoming literary novel all by himself. “The Thief of Auschwitz” is set for release in paperback and e-book in January.
“Am I insane?” he asks, as I struggle to come up with some polite way to ask if he’s insane.
“My agent was not very happy with me. But everywhere I go these days, I see things that remind me that I’m doing the right thing. Yesterday, I was out for a bike ride here in Vermont, and right up the road, we have the Long Trail Brewery. It occurred to me that I’m kind of like a micro brewer of publishing. Big publishers are good at certain kinds of things that have to do with mass audience and big trends and so on, and it’s like big brewing. I’m the little guy who can turn out something that maybe isn’t for everybody, and that’s okay.”
He’s also looking forward to the kind of flexibility that the big six publishers can’t match. In 2010, Oprah magazine recommended his second novel, “Kings of the Earth.” But that summer issue came out seven weeks before his book went on sale, and Random House couldn’t move fast enough to capitalize on Oprah’s invaluable seal of approval.
“This time around,” Clinch says, “the moment somebody says something nice about the book, I’m going to pull the trigger, because I can. That’s the difference with this new microbrewery approach.”
If leaving Random House doesn’t give him pause, using CreateSpace does.
“I hate that it’s part of Amazon because I love indie bookstores,” he says. “But there’s only one good way I can get books self-published now. And you know what? They do a great job. The books look good. They ship promptly.”
So he’s on his own this time. He’s hired Kelly & Hall to do publicity, and he plans to run banner ads on the lit blog Shelf Awareness. Indie bookstores can get advance copies of “The Thief of Auschwitz” through the Web site he built himself.
What if a regular publisher sees his success and offers him a contract to come back into the fold?
“Nope,” he says. “I’ve had that. I don’t need to be authorized in that way again. I can go ahead and take my own lumps and have my own success.”
Like Huck, he’s been there before. Now he reckons he’s got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor for The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.