The story of how DEAR ZOE found its way to Viking is one I still have trouble believing. If you have ever doubted the combined powers of blind persistence and serendipity, then read on.

After practicing law full-time for eleven years, I began work on my first novel, billing just enough hours from home to make family grocery money. Fueled mostly by fear, I finished it in nine months, and a year later secured a wonderful agent, Jane Dystel, to represent it. I was still naïve enough to believe that agents were magic, that a book deal was now imminent, and that the transition from my old career to my new one was complete. Six months later, Jane received the last of the twenty-seven rejection letters, and
THE LOVE NUMBER went back in the drawer. Fortunately, I had followed Jane's advice and was already halfway through a first draft of a second novel, and by January of 2003, DEAR ZOE was ready for submission.

After the first six rejection letters arrived, I was advised by more than one person that I should change the point of view before submitting to any more publishers — that the epistolary format of
DEAR ZOE took away from the intimacy between narrator and reader and should be re-thought. I had resisted that advice for months. To me, it always felt as if Tess needed, as part of her healing process, to be speaking directly to Zoe, not to us. And being able to eavesdrop on those conversations created, I believed, an even more intimate experience for readers. But, having already had one novel rejected by every major house in New York, I was willing to do just about anything to avoid the same fate for the second. I spent a month revising the novel to standard first person, changed the title to "Z," then sat and cried when I sent it off that way.

The change didn’t help. Three months later, the last of the twenty-eight rejection letters arrived. We came close more than once (I will always be indebted to Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown for her encouragement and for championing Z at that fine house), but in the end I was faced with the prospect of starting work on a third novel without any faith that it would find a home. I couldn't do it. Knowing that others had found success with their third or fourth books didn’t help. I felt lost, directionless, paralyzed by the first real failure of my life. I couldn't picture myself going back to the practice of law full-time, yet three attempts to start a new novel went nowhere. My family of chronic overachievers didn't say anything, but I knew they were watching me closely. I spent the spring and summer performing mindless tasks: I worked for my younger brother (the ultimate self-humiliation), finishing the new wood paneling in his basement, getting slightly looped on polyurethane; I went to the gym, got my body in shape, got the yard in shape; I spent too much time watching the war in Iraq on CNN, too much time on the internet; I cleaned and alphabetized all 800 beer cans from the childhood collection that had been rusting in my parents’ attic for 25 years; I wore out two pairs of sneakers walking the dog. Then I saw an article in the New York Times about self-publishing and decided to take back control of my new career.

I spent the next six months treating the publication of
DEAR ZOE as my full-time job. I went back to the earlier version of the manuscript — restoring both the original title and the original point of view — and read every text on self-publishing I could find. I formed Van Buren Books as a Pennsylvania LLC, solicited competing bids from small printers who took the time to teach me the difference between smythe sewn and adhesive case bindings, gloss and lay-flat matte lamination, headbands, footbands, endsheets and binder boards. I found a cover designer (Amy King) a national distributor willing to take a chance (Midpoint Trade Books), a tireless, imaginative publicist (Maryglenn McCombs), and I sent the manuscript to every published writer I had ever met (and some I hadn't) asking them to read DEAR ZOE and consider providing a blurb for the back cover.

The key to finding all of these crucial contributors was, quite simply, not being afraid to ask. I knew my chances of success were minuscule, but I was energized by the ability to control every aspect of the process, by creating and following every small lead. For example, I found Amy King by taking fifty of my favorite covers off my shelves, checking the flaps for the designer credits, and stacking each designer in individual piles (you’d be surprised how few cover designers there are in New York). My wife and I agreed that Amy’s covers were consistently the strongest, and I called Doubleday the next day looking for her. I was told that Amy no longer worked there, but that her husband was still with Random House. I asked to be transferred to him, and then found myself in New York Publishing Limbo — the secretary’s voice mail — leaving a long meandering message about why I was looking for "your boss’s wife." Incredibly, Amy King called me the next day. Pregnant with her second child, she had just left Doubleday to open her own design shop and was looking for new clients.

My agent, Jane Dystel, was invaluable during this time as well. I was afraid she was going to caution me that self-publishing would be akin to literary suicide, but she was supportive from the beginning. She put me in touch with tough publicity veteran, Rick Frishman, who gave me more of his time than I could have hoped for, along with some honest, sage advice that went something like this: "You’re insane, you know; but if you insist on doing this, you need a distributor." He directed me to Eric Kampmann, President of Midpoint Trade Books, and if Eric at first took me on as a favor to Rick, he gradually became a vocal and active advocate for my novel. Eric, in turn, sent me to Maryglenn, my publicist. I had galleys (advance review copies) produced at Express Media in Nashville using Amy King's design, and I settled on Thompson-Shore in Michigan to print 3,000 hardcovers. Here’s what my self-published cover was going to look like.

(See the original self-published cover)

The project was really moving along nicely, even gathering a little momentum. But to finish the story, I first need to go back.

Just after deciding to self-publish, I was in my favorite independent bookstore, The Aspinwall Bookshop, two blocks from my home. When I was in law school, the proprietor, John Towle, had worked for a Pittsburgh indie bookseller institution, Jay Dantry of Jay’s Bookstall, alongside then-Pitt writing student, Michael Chabon. I came to know John not just as someone who sold books, but as someone who recommended great books. Completely by chance, when I graduated from law school and moved to Aspinwall, John left Jay’s and, after an interim location or two, opened his own one-room shop on my street. When I started writing again, John became the first unbiased barometer of my work.

The day I stopped by to tell John about my self-publishing plans, he told me that his Penguin sales rep, Jason Gobble, was due to stop in later that week, and that Jason was someone who "has some credibility with the editors at Penguin." I told John that the book had already been rejected by most of the Penguin imprints, but agreed to drop off a copy of the manuscript the next day.

A few months later, John called to tell me that Jason loved
DEAR ZOE and wanted permission to send it to Viking. I agreed but with no expectations. I had already wallpapered my office with rejection letters from New York, and I was certain this was going to be one more. What I was excited about, however, was the possibility of having an influential regional sales rep behind my book. Jason Gobble and I struck up an e-mail friendship, and although he couldn’t "officially" represent my book to the independents in his 5-state territory, he agreed to distribute my galleys informally to all of his best hand-sellers with a strong recommendation.

Just weeks after sending my manuscript off to Viking, Jason Gobble was named by Publishers Weekly as its Sales Rep of the Year and was featured in a three-page spread. Suddenly, Van Buren Books and
DEAR ZOE had a very influential advocate. Over the course of the next couple of months, I increased my planned print run to 5,000 copies, and Maryglenn and Midpoint both scheduled signings for me at the Book Expo in Chicago in June, 2004. I had 100 galley copies printed for distribution through Jason to booksellers, through Maryglenn to reviewers, and through Midpoint to their national account reps, and Amy King and I finalized the jacket design. During that time, I honestly never gave a thought to the Viking submission.

On March 23, 2004, I was sitting at my computer, corresponding with Amy King on the final jacket layout. The overall design had been set for weeks, but we had been struggling with the logo for Van Buren Books that would appear on the spine. To stay within my publication timeline, we needed to have the final design mechanicals to our printer within a couple of days. At the same time, I would write the largest check of my life to print books I couldn’t be sure anyone beyond my Christmas card list would buy. I sent an e-mail to Amy with my final decision on the logo, instructing her to get the mechanicals to the printer by the next day. Then I called Maryglenn, confirmed that we were on schedule, and told her to start sending the galleys out to the advance reviewers. When I clicked back to my in-box, there was an e-mail from the receptionist at my law firm that said the following:

"Clare Ferraro from Viking called and would like you to call her back. She said to say she works with Jason Gobble."

I stared at that message, motionless, for what must have been a full minute. I knew that Clare Ferraro didn’t just "work with Jason Gobble," that she was the president of Viking Penguin. And although I couldn't imagine how a call from her could possibly be bad news, it just didn't seem possible that, after four years, a novel of mine was going to find a home in New York on the same day I was finalizing plans to print it myself. Of course, that's exactly what happened. By the end of the day, Jane Dystel had come to an agreement with Viking, and I had notified everyone involved in my self-publishing effort that Van Buren Books was suspending operations. Three weeks later,
DEAR ZOE appeared in the "Hot Deals" column of Publishers Weekly. Unbelievable.

Still, I am probably the only writer who ever felt a sense of nostalgia along with the elation of finally being validated by New York. In the process of preparing
DEAR ZOE to go to press, I came to know every player in the chain of production, promotion and distribution in a way that can never happen at a major publishing house; nor should it. The people at Viking will do more for DEAR ZOE than I ever could have hoped for on my own. And, fortunately, I have been able to continue my relationship with many of the people I worked with: Amy King was retained by Viking to work on its version of the cover; Maryglenn McCombs still e-mails me with ideas for getting Tess's story to a wider audience; Jason Gobble now gets to sell the novel he discovered in the tiny Aspinwall Bookshop; and John Towle, the owner of that shop and always the first person outside my family to read my work, will host my first official book signing.


P.B.
October, 2004


















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