Stories of commercially successful self-published books being reissued by trade publishers are all over the book industry news these days. But a university press—one that doesn't often publish new fiction—picking up a nearly 700-page debut novel narrated by a young lawyer, with a plot that covers everything from the death penalty to television to boxing? Sergio de la Pava and the University of Chicago Press have that field to themselves.
De la Pava's A Naked Singularity was self-published in 2008, accumulating positive reviews and thoughtful, in-depth coverage from traditional media like the Wall Street Journal to online reviewers including the Millions and the Quarterly Conversation, when Chicago acquired it in 2011. Several days ago, A Naked Singularity won the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham award for best debut novel of 2012. The novel, experimental in its prose style and structure and skilled in its use of language, follows the work and thoughts of Casi, a public defender whose cases include an appeal of a death sentence. In the book's early pages, Casi dashes from one client to another, and the reader quickly gets a sense of de la Pava's writing as Casi interviews a teenage defendant:
What were you doing there?
just hanging out with a friend.
we call him Boop.
What's his real name?
i d'know just Boop.
Where does he live?
d'know, think downtown.
The edition published by the press was almost identical to de la Pava's self-published version, so the work he did with editor Margaret Hivnor “wasn't the traditional editor-author relationship,” he says, comparing it to the work done to reissue an out-of-print book.
Before Chicago published A Naked Singularity, de la Pava's wife Susanna was the driving force behind the book's popularity. “It's not an exaggeration to say that without her the book basically doesn't exist,” he says. “She's a really bright person who essentially made this entire thing possible.”
It was Susanna who handled the publicity and outreach, targeting literary websites like Open Letters Monthly that became the novel's champions after they received a copy of the book and an introductory letter. “The self-publication of the book in late 2008 happened to coincide with the rise of many superb online literary publications,” Susanna says. She also served as her husband's representative when University of Chicago Press first approached him after publicity director Levi Stahl read the Quarterly Conversation's profile.
While de la Pava is grateful for the expertise that Chicago's marketing, production and subrights staff bring to the process—Spanish publisher Pálido Fuego recently bought translation rights—he realized he had to adjust his expectations for himself once he was no longer working alone. “Now other people have kind of stuck their necks out” on behalf of A Naked Singularity, he says. “Before, if the book was not successful, it really only affected me.”
As a rule, though, de la Pava doesn't concern himself too much with commercial success. “I really don't get too caught up in that,” he says when asked where it would make him happiest to see his book displayed.
De la Pava, who is currently working on his third book (he self-published his second, Personae, shortly before Chicago acquired A Naked Singularity), fits his writing around his work as a public defender, and while “that does tend to make the writing more sporadic at times,” he doesn't think he would give up the day job if he had a choice. “I think I'm a bit too restless” to write full-time, he said. “It's useful to have this other concurrent pursuit.”
In fact, because of their belief in his talent, University of Chicago Press is also picking up the writer’s second novel Personae, in October (see sidebar). Will his third book be first self-published as well? De la Pava isn't certain. While “certain aspects of that suit my personality,” he says, “I'm not a thousand percent sure what I'll do.” He enjoys the sense of control that comes with the self-publisher's involvement in every step of the publishing process, as well as the speed with which he can go from finished manuscript to printed book. But he's still a fan of the traditional publishing arrangement, and not only for the specialized skills publishers bring: “The preferable route is to have somebody else pay you and then publish the book,” he asserts.
At the same time, de la Pava does see self-publishing as a viable path for other writers. Despite the challenges self-published authors face, “it can, in some instances, still work out,” he says. The one piece of advice he would offer to all authors considering self-publishing is not to rely only on their own judgment as to a book's merits. Once a writer has decided a manuscript is ready to be published, he or she should seek out “credible, multiple opinions about the worth of that book.”
And after the book is published, de la Pava doesn't encourage writers to dwell on its success in the marketplace. “External affirmations are dangerous,” he says, a philosophy that he strives to embrace in his own writing career.
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Mass.