Stairway to heaven

It wasn't that long ago when success for writers was measured by what awards and recognition their work had achieved.

Writers hoped their books would be reviewed at least regionally, then nationally. They prayed they'd be lucky enough to have their work assessed in the one place that could allegedly make or break a writer -- the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

After that, prestige was bestowed upon writers for the awards their work won: the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize or that rarest of feats, a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Reviews and awards were how the value of a writer's work was assessed by the reading public.

These days, the measure of a writer's importance is too often reduced to the size of his contract. When Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" was first released, it received more attention initially for the amount of money the book made than its literary quality. In a capitalist society, money is the measure of achievement.

We see this emphasis played out in the attention two new books are drawing, Maryann McFadden's "The Richest Season" and Brunonia Barry's "The Lace Reader." The buzz around these books centers on the fact that both were originally self-published, then subsequently picked up by major publishing houses. McFadden received a contract from Hyperion in the high six figures. Morrow signed Barry to a contract in excess of $2 million. The stories of these two books have given self-published authors hope that their work, too, could meet a similar fate -- and make them a lot of money.

But part of the success of McFadden and Barry has to do with the fact that they tell stories that are timely and pitchable to the single most powerful demographic group in publishing today: women's book clubs. A greater part has to do with the fact they were able to put in more time and money to market and publicize their own work than most people can afford. But none of that would have mattered if they hadn't first put in years writing and revising their books, to make sure they were as polished as they could be.

Different styles, subjects

"The Richest Season" and "The Lace Reader" are different in style and subject matter. McFadden's novel tells the story of a woman who flees a stultifying life as the wife of a man climbing the corporate ladder. Johanna leaves her marriage of 25 years to go live alone on Pawley's Island, hoping to start anew. There she meets an older woman who has come to the island to die, and a man who teaches her about passion.

McFadden's story, written in a clean, active prose style that enhances the story's basic tension and suspense, is a page-turner that will appeal to every woman who has ever felt lonely and isolated, left emotionally unfulfilled by the daily grind of a work-centered life. Because part of the novel is told from the point of view of Paul, the husband she leaves behind, any man who has ever questioned the path he has chosen in life will also find much to identify with in the book.

"The Lace Reader" is more unabashedly a woman's novel. Told by a woman named Towner, it focuses on a family of women who can read the future in patterns of Ipswich lace. There are plenty of hooks in the story line -- disappearances, murder, a circle of women seen by some as a coven of witches -- but the book is surprisingly literary for such an avowed best-seller, Instead of writing an energetic tour-de-force, Barry has written a meditative, occasionally lyric novel that in its discursive storytelling style -- full of digressions and expository sections on interesting facts -- will appeal to people who enjoy savoring a book one section at a time.

Years in the making

The stories of how McFadden and Barry achieved commercial success share similarities. Both women spent 10 years writing professionally before they began their novels. McFadden published freelance articles in newspapers and magazines for a decade, and Barry worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Both women spent years writing and revising their novels under the tutelage of professional writers and editors. McFadden wrote a draft of her novel for her thesis while working on a master's degree in English literature at William Patterson University, where she worked closely with her professors to polish her manuscript. After graduating, she spent another two years rewriting the book. And Barry spent two years writing her first draft, then worked for four years with an editor revising her manuscript.

Neither woman rushed her work into print too early. Once the books were done, each woman brought her own particular skills, and contacts, to the marketing process.

Putting skills to work

McFadden tried for years, without success, to acquire an agent before she decided to publish "The Richest Season" herself. Having worked extensively as a real estate agent, she knew how to sell, so she put those skills to work on her book. Choosing a California print-on-demand publisher, she published "The Richest Season" and went to work. She had a Web site designed; wrote news releases; printed up and distributed brochures and posters; repeatedly contacted newspapers, radio stations and cable TV shows; cultivated relationships with bookstores and readers' clubs; visited bookseller conventions -- and followed up on those contacts again and again. Her sales background helped her edit her pitch to each new audience: In Charlotte, she spoke about the corporate angle; in South Carolina, she emphasized the book's Pawley's Island setting. In one five-month period, she did 25 signings, spoke to 40 book clubs and visited numerous libraries and senior centers to pitch her work.

She hand-sold 2,000 copies of her book and used that, along with her contacts at book clubs and independent bookstores, to get an agent to agree to read her work. It was the same book she'd tried unsuccessfully to find representation for before, but now she had clear evidence of the book's marketability. The agent loved "The Richest Season" and arranged auctions for the work, in this country and in Germany and Italy.

Her own company

When Barry's book was finished, she made no attempt to place it with a New York publisher. Instead, she drew on her background working at an incubator for startup companies to create her own publishing company. She set up a Web site, then hired a copy editor and a jacket designer, as well as a book publicist to pitch her work. Like McFadden, Barry attended bookseller conventions and spent a great deal of time cultivating relationships with bookstore owners and book clubs. Her publicist contacted book bloggers, trade magazines and 700 independent bookstores. Perhaps most important, her publicist arranged a distribution deal, even though the book was self-published. Publisher's Weekly, which seldom reviews self-published work, gave the book a rave review.

Barry spent two years of her time, and $50,000 of her money, publicizing and marketing her book, but her big breakthrough came when she drew on a contact she knew from her screenwriting days in Hollywood -- an agent who specialized in book-to-movie deals. He loved the work but knew he couldn't sell movie rights because it was published by a small press. So he arranged for the agency's New York literary branch to read "The Lace Reader." That agent loved the book. It went out on auction and brought in more than $2 million dollars for Barry.

The worst thing that could come out of these self-published-to-millionaire stories would be for other self-published authors to think all they had to do was hound bookstore owners and readers' groups and the same could happen to them. Perseverance is a lesson here. But perseverance, first, in the writing. McFadden and Barry put in years fine-tuning their books, and were open to help from professional critics and editors while they were revising their work. They did everything they could first to make sure the writing was as good as they could make it. Then they put in extraordinary amounts of time, and money, to market their work.

But without that first stage, the willingness to hone their craft, their marketing efforts would have gone for naught.