A few months ago, I sold the reprint rights for my independently published novel, Himalayan Dhaba, to a major New York publisher for a six-figure advance. Now I’m often asked what I did to achieve such a coup. With the hope that other small publishers and independent authors might find something valuable and inspiring within, I offer the following story.
Ten years ago, my wife and I left our medical practices, sold our house and our two cars, and traveled high up into the Himalayas, to a remote town with a tiny hospital, where we were to join a talented Indian surgeon. He was performing medical magic using the most basic medicines and surgical equipment, and we had written him, asking if we could work at his side and learn how he was able to do so much with so little. He enthusiastically agreed. However, after traveling halfway around the world, we finally arrived to find that this surgeon had left the hospital three days earlier for a nine-month training program in Uganda.
Like most things in life, the experience was not what we’d expected. Working mostly on our own, we spent a long, cold winter simply doing the best we could. We encountered illnesses we’d never seen before, battled feelings of shame and incompetence when we couldn’t save a patient, and enjoyed feelings of pride and elation when we could. There were, of course, huge cultural and language barriers, and we worked hard to learn some of the local Hindi dialect. My wife and I quickly memorized such phrases as “What color is your phlegm?” and “Have you passed gas yet today?” While these were common questions in the hospital, they were not very useful when sharing dinner at a neighbor’s house!
Snow Falling on Surgeons
One evening, we were called from such a meal to rush to the trauma room to take care of a three-year-old girl who had fallen off a balcony and landed on her head. She needed an operation to drill holes in her head to relieve swelling on the brain. We rushed the child to the surgery, where I administered ether anesthesia. I then read out the gruesome instructions from a surgical textbook as my wife and a young Indian doctor used barbaric-looking instruments to perform an operation none of us had ever seen before. The surgery took all night, during which time the first winter storm descended on the valley. I’ll never forget the incredible sense of elation I felt as I carried this precious little girl back to the wards and the tired nurse swung open the courtyard doors to display a two-foot blanket of sparkling snow beneath a bright blue Himalayan sky. The surgery was a success, and three days later, the girl was playing in the trampled slush of the courtyard.
By the middle of January, the snow was deep enough to close the trails and passes that led the patients to the hospital. For several weeks, we had little to do. It was at this time in an unheated room above the hospital lab that I began writing Himalayan Dhaba, the story of an American woman doctor running a hospital high in the mountains of India.
I’ll now fast-forward to 10 years later–the spring of 2000. My wife and I are living on a small farm in the Hood River Valley region of Oregon, and Himalayan Dhaba has received more than 120 rejections from literary agents and 16 rejections from editors at the best literary publishers. I had suffered the anguish of a failed book auction, drafted andorm>rafted the manuscript a half a dozen times, and used everything but a toilet plunger to try to shove the novel into the proverbial “desk drawer” so I could get on with my next novel. The manuscript, however, would not be ignored. Then, on my 41st birthday, I received an e-mail from an agent in New York. She’d had the manuscript for more than nine months. At various times during that period, she had lost the manuscript, found it, or was getting a second opinion from a colleague. Here’s what her final e-mail said: “Dear Craig, Thank you for sending me your manuscript, but our agency no longer handles literary fiction.”
The Self-Publishing Step
I decided then to take what many told me was an awesomely irresponsible, foolhardy, and more-than-just-slightly mortifying step of becoming a Self-Published Author. In some of my prior incarnations, I had been a photographer, a typesetter, and the Production Director for both a newspaper and an advertising agency. So I pretty much had the skills to produce a book. However nobody can do a good job editing their own work, so I asked my friend Tim Sheehan, a fellow novelist, if he would edit the manuscript. He amazed me by agreeing. I thought at first that I would print out 500 copies. But then we ended up with what we felt was a stunning cover based on some photographs my wife took in India, and I started thinking about a print run of 1,000. Then I sent out Advance Readers Copies to some Northwest authors I admire, and suddenly I had a full page of glowing blurbs. I bumped the print run up to 2,000.
My biggest break came after the books arrived from the printer in Michigan. Staring at two tall pallets representing more than $15,000 of our life savings, my wife Beth agreed to be my publicist. A charming woman who writes a great cover letter, Beth got things started with a full-page color feature in our local paper, then glowing reviews in The Dalles Chronicle and the Salem Statesman-Journal. Except for Booklist, the novel was ignored by all the national review journals, but even so our page of review blurbs was getting longer and more credible.
Booksellers Get on Board
Our plan was to start locally, and let the publicity grow in ever widening circles. Because we knew that hand-selling by independent bookstores was our only hope of getting readers to buy, we began making cold calls to small stores. Now Beth and I have both worked in Emergency Rooms, and so we’re both experienced in talking to all manner of deranged patients. She and I agree that it’s easier to talk down a blood-soaked psychotic schizophrenic stoned on crystal meth than it is to walk into a bookstore with a self-published book. I remember circling the block three times before entering a store, terrified that some sweet young clerk would look up at me from beneath the hoop pierced in her eyebrow and sneer. But, with a little practice, we started having some good bookstore experiences.
Karen West at The Bookmark in Eugene, Oregon, bought our first three copies. Bobby Tichenor at Annie Bloom’s in Portland took my novel home and read it, then got her staff excited about hand-selling it (she also probably sent in our first Booksense 76 nomination). Jan Waldmann at Powells became a champion. She brought Himalayan Dhaba to the attention of Partners/West, and urged Thom Chambliss to take a serious look. Thom invited me to speak at the fall Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association show, and Judy Ness diplomatically guided us into renting a table on the exhibit floor. Judy also very graciously put a bug in the ear of a Publishers Weekly correspondent. We got a chance to meet booksellers, giving out several hundred autographed readers copies.
As booksellers started reading Himalayan Dhaba, we started getting invitations for readings and signings. I spent 10 hours at Annie Bloom’s one Saturday, and because the staff was so enthusiastically behind the book, I sold enough copies to make the top of their best-seller list. We then hit the jackpot when it was their turn to list their top 10 in the Sunday Oregonian, and I became a #1 best-selling author based on the sale of 23 books.
The Momentum Mounts
We did a series of book tours through the Northwest, and booksellers started sending in Booksense 76 nominations. Six weeks after the PNBA show, we had sold out our first printing of 2,000 copies. By the end of November, we heard from Carl Lennertz that we’d made the 76 list for January 2002. By the middle of December, we were quietly told that Himalayan Dhaba would be winning a PNBA award. In January, the Booksense list hit the stores, the novel was featured in a Publishers Weekly article, and suddenly the phone started ringing.
It was a delicious feeling to finally get the chance to reject some of the New York agents and publishers who had turned my book down. After two weeks, we had weathered a bidding storm, which left in its wake a six-figure advance and a book deal with Penguin/Putnam, the second largest trade publisher in the world, which will release its edition this summer.
Perhaps it’s a bit ironic to measure the success of Himalayan Dhaba as an independently published novel by the size of the advance for reprint rights from a major publisher. But from another perspective, we had our first success when we opened the box from the printer and, after years of effort, finally held the book in our hands.
Craig Danner is currently working on his next novel, “The Fires of Edgarville.”