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Amazon Defied All My Expectations

By way of thanks, Amazon sent me a large box of diapers. I love books but by god those diapers were welcome.
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The logo for is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
The logo for is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Will Wiles was the only debut novelist on Amazon Publishing's first list this fall. He tells HuffPost how it came about, and what it's like to be published by the Seattle-based giant.

Even when all is flux, some things don't change too much. The first-time novelist's day of jubilee, when he or she first sees their book appear on the shelves at their local bookshop, is as powerful as I imagine it ever was. But the digital age has added new, more subtle, less sudden gratification to that old joy.

Now you can watch your book slowly materialize on the more abstract shelves of the online retailers, and on Amazon in particular It fades in, like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat in reverse: first the product page appears in the index, with little more than your title, then it accrues more and more flesh.

A cover image appears, a publication date, a price, the publisher's description. As I waited for the UK publication day of my debut novel, Care of Wooden Floors, its gathering online presence was a daily distraction. But I didn't guess that Amazon would end up being a much more than a retail outlet for me. My book has just come out in the United States - as the first novel published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest.

Chance played a role. They were long months indeed, waiting for UK publication. My UK publisher, HarperCollins, swooped on the manuscript with an offer within a handful of days of my agent putting it on the market. But that was in October 2010, and publication was scheduled for February 2012 -- a date that seemed then to be unbearably deep into the mists of the future. 2011 shaped up to be a long year. And all through that year my diligent agents -- Antony Topping in London and Jim Rutman in New York -- pursued an American deal. Canadian rights went quickly, to Anchor Canada, part of Random House; HarperCollins successfully sold a bunch a European translation rights. But the United States remained curiously intractable.

In the UK, praise and good omens heaped up. The book was selected for bookseller promotions and purchased for adaptation by BBC Radio. And American editors seemed to like the book. But they were, it seemed, united in a belief that they were the only ones who would like it, that beyond their office, out in the cutthroat world of marketing and sales, it was doomed. I can't blame them for this.

Care of Wooden Floors is an odd, dark book with a title that almost insists on accidental mis-shelving in the DIY and home improvement section of the bookshop. If there's one thing the arbiters of literary taste on Goodreads can agree on, it's that characters should be likeable, and mine aren't, not really. (I like them, but that perhaps says something unwelcome about me.) Unfortunate things happen to a cat, a writing no-no so deeply carved in stone that there's a whole book on screenwriting called Save the Cat!. It's a funny book -- that's my intention, anyway -- but the laughs come from a rather cruel and maybe rather British place. The apex of our national comedy tradition is, after all, a deranged hotelier punching a waiter in the face.

Fall 2010 had become fall 2011 with little progress in New York. But a new player had come onto the field -- Amazon, then setting up a New York publishing office under the direction of Larry Kirshbaum. In an experimental frame of mind, we sent it to Ed Park, the senior editor at the new enterprise. And where others had wavered, Park acted. 1-Click ordering, as they say. I was delighted, as any author would be at selling a book. When the full implications of the deal were explained to me -- the first novel by a new publishing house -- I was humbled.

I've been asked here to give a kind of insider account of this deal with Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. In fact authors are often the worst people to tell that story -- only editors and agents gets a really good look under the bonnet of a book deal, with the authors only appearing at certain points to give a ritual thumbs-up or -down, and ultimately sign their name.

But working with Amazon Publishing/New Harvest as an author has defied my expectations. Not unreasonably, I thought I'd be dealing with a corporate colossus. Instead, it has been more like like working with a small, indie-minded New York publishing start-up -- which is in effect what New Harvest is, albeit one with an unusually powerful backer. Its small team crackles with energy.

My editor, the aforementioned Ed Park, was a founding editor of The Believer and is as passionate a reader as I've ever met, as well as being a talented novelist in his own right. But there are also perks that come with being part of such an immense retail and distribution empire. In one of the cosmic accidents that make life more interesting, Care of Wooden Floors was published in the USA in the same week that my wife gave birth to our first child. For a few days I had to combine caring for a newborn with interviews and promotional activities. Publishers are often generous with copies of books from their list -- but by way of thanks, Amazon sent me a large box of diapers. I love books but by god those diapers were welcome.

I'm sad, of course, that being published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest means I won't have the pleasure of seeing my book in a Barnes & Noble. The larger physical bookselling chains -- themselves once feared as monopolies-in-the-making -- are now rightly seen as a vital part of the publishing and reading ecosystem.

Ascendant companies always seem most threatening at the moment when they're becoming indispensable parts of the scenery of an industry. I suspect we may come to feel the same way about Amazon.

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