Twenty-five publishers turned down my thriller novel, The Ark. If you're not familiar with New York publishing, that's everybody. And it wasn't because they didn't like it, which made for some serious cognitive dissonance on my part. My agent, Irene Goodman, thought my story--about a former combat engineer who must find Noah's Ark in seven days to stop the end of the world--was a slam dunk. But when she sent The Ark out to publishers in 2008, we got what I call "rave rejections." Here's the general flavor of the replies we received:
Thanks for sending me The Ark, a thrill-a-minute novel that I will nevertheless have to turn down. Despite the fact that I stayed up until four in the morning reading Mr. Morrison's book, I can't see how we would market such a page-turner. Although the writing, action, and characters in The Ark were great, it is simply too exciting. As you know, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, James Rollins, and Steve Berry are phenomenal bestsellers who write the kind of action-adventure book Mr. Morrison writes, and we just don't think readers want more of them. Besides, what would be the big deal about finding Noah's Ark? However, mine is just one opinion, so I wish you success with one of the other twenty-four publishers.
J.P. Smythlington, Publisher
PS--And there aren't any vampires in it.
I may have exaggerated their sentiments a tad, but the consensus of every major publisher could be summarized thusly: "No."
Irene concluded that the timing was all wrong. This was in the post-DaVinci Code era, and everyone was jaded about artifact thrillers, so we decided to pull back and regroup.
I then did what every mature, sensible writer should do in that situation. I cried like a girl.
No, what I did was stop banging my head against my keyboard in frustration and start writing another book. After all, unless you're Harper Lee, one book doesn't make for much of a writing career.
I did briefly consider self-publishing The Ark as a print book--sometimes shortened to pbook or DTB (dead tree book) for the ecologically-minded--until I realized I would have to become a salesman, schlepping books around in the trunk of my car or convincing people to spend twenty dollars on my print-on-demand paperback. No thanks. I wanted to be published so that I could focus on the easy job of writing and someone else could focus on the hard job of packaging, editing, marketing, and selling.
At the beginning of 2009, as I was building my web site with the intent of letting people download my books for free, I noticed that Amazon was allowing authors to post their unpublished manuscripts to the Kindle store and giving them a cut of the proceeds. Irene agreed that The Ark and my two other unpublished thriller novels were doing no good sitting on my hard drive, so I thought, why not put them up on Amazon and see what happens? The only thing it would cost me was a small fee to a graphic designer to create covers that looked better than the artistically-deficient horrors I could make.
My extensive marketing plan consisted of pricing my books under two dollars and telling a few friends and family, three of whom had a Kindle. You won't be surprised to learn that my expectations were low.
But word-of-mouth took over. Readers on discussion forums like Kindleboards, Mobileread, and Amazon started recommending my books to each other. When I found those discussions through the magic of Google, I popped in to say hi and not much more. Nobody likes the hard sell.
To my shock, my novels started climbing the bestseller list. Within a month, The Ark, which was getting excellent reviews from readers, reached number one on the Kindle store's technothriller bestseller list, higher than established authors like Tom Clancy and Brad Thor. In three months, my three books sold 7,500 copies and were selling at a rate of 4,000 books per month.
That got the attention of editor Sulay Hernandez at Touchstone Books, which is a division of Simon & Schuster. Because of my ebook success, S&S offered me a four-book deal, and The Ark was released in May 2010 in hardcover, ebook, and audio formats. And because of my American deal, my foreign rights agent, Danny Baror, was able to sell The Ark to eighteen foreign markets and counting.
As far as we can tell, The Ark is the first self-published Kindle book to be published by one of the Big Six publishers. I'm sure it won't be the last, but some even ask if it's better to bypass traditional publishers altogether.
For me, the answer was no. I wanted to see my novels in bookstores, both in the US and abroad. Self-publishing electronically might not have been the conventional path, but I know without a doubt that The Ark would not be a pbook if it weren't for ebooks.
At the time, I thought getting rejected by those twenty-five publishers was a terrible blow to my writing career. Instead, I now realize it was just the start of my journey.