Author Darcie Chan writes a letter to readers to share her experience moving from self-publishing her e-book to hitting the New York Times bestseller list to scoring a book deal with Random House. She also reminds us that “you should always expect the unexpected,” and we couldn’t agree more! Her sensational story certainly reminds us of that.
The Mill River Recluse is my first novel. For most authors, writing a first novel is a learning experience and a labor of love. Trying to get a first novel published is quite another matter. Frustration and disappointment abound. The paths to traditional publication are paved with rejection letters from agents and publishers. Self-publishing these days also presents a host of difficulties. Producing a quality story on one’s own is just the first step; an author must then get that story noticed in an ever-expanding ocean of content. The Mill River Recluse has taken me down both paths, culminating in an amazing, roller-coaster ride that I never expected to experience.
My central story idea for The Mill River Recluse had a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it a substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.
The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and other necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.
I remembered what Mr. Strauss had done when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.
I began writing for a few hours after work most evenings, and it took two and a half years to complete a first draft. I polished the manuscript as best I could, and I was ecstatic when Laurie Liss, an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, agreed to shop it around for me. Despite Laurie’s valiant efforts, though, my novel didn’t sell. I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved that someday, I would write a second book and try again. Life went on.
I didn’t write much during the next several years. My job grew increasingly demanding, my husband finished his residency and accepted a position necessitating a move to a different state, and we had a baby. (I’m still trying to catch up on sleep missed for all those reasons!) But, when my son was a toddler, I started reading articles about how e-books had exploded in popularity. Even more interesting was the fact that apparently it had become very easy for an individual writer to self-publish a book in electronic form. I thought of The Mill River Recluse languishing in my drawer. I figured I had nothing to lose and released it as an e-book in May 2011.
Soon, I realized that no one would find my novel among all the other e-books out there unless I did some sort of marketing for it. After all, publishing companies invest in marketing and publicity for their books. As an individual with a modest budget, there was no way I could fund a major marketing campaign, but I arranged for a few inexpensive online ads to get my novel on readers’ radar screens. I kept the price of my book very low, to encourage people to take a chance on a story by a completely unknown writer. I also set up a website, Twitter account, and Facebook author page. And then, I waited.
Sales started to trickle in. During the first month, I sold around a hundred copies. I was so thrilled! To think, a hundred people had bought my book! My husband, Tim, and I grabbed up our little boy and did a happy dance in the kitchen. “Wow, maybe you’ll be able to sell a thousand,” I remember him saying. I doubted that, but I thought perhaps a few hundred more sales might be possible.
In late June, a feature of my novel popped up on a large website that recommends e-books to readers. Within two days, another six hundred copies sold! After the feature ended, the pace of sales accelerated. Reviews from readers started coming in—and most of them were the kind of glowing, positive reviews that authors dream of receiving. I was hearing directly from those readers, too.
One gentleman sent me an email to tell me that he loved the book, but that he had had to wait until his wife had left the house to read the last few pages. The reason? He didn’t want his wife to see him become “a blubbering mess.” Another woman wrote to tell me that she had read my book aloud to her mother in the hospital, and it brought her mother great comfort during her last days of life. Both of those messages, as well as many others I received, left me in tears. And the emails and Facebook messages kept coming from readers of all ages throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
By mid-July, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I kept my agent in the loop, of course, but I was shocked when she called me in mid-August and left a cryptic message on my answering machine.
“Darcie, it’s Laurie. Check your email.”
I scrambled around and got to my computer. She had sent me an advance copy of the latest New York Times bestseller list.
The Mill River Recluse appeared on it at #12.
To this day, there are no words that are adequate to describe everything I felt in that moment. My novel remained on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the next several months, and the wonderful notes from readers kept coming. I thought that surely, finally, things had peaked, but I was wrong.
In late November 2011, I was contacted by Alexandra Alter, a book reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She wanted to interview me for a feature story about my writing journey up to that point. Alexandra was cheerful and pleasant when she came to my home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel at all nervous or odd about speaking with her until she told me that, during the previous week, she had gone up to Maine to interview Stephen King.
I am still mortified when I envision how far my mouth must have dropped open before I regained control of it.
The Wall Street Journal ran Alexandra’s article on December 9, 2011. It appeared on the front page of the Friday magazine, with a full-color photo spread inside and additional teasers on the front page of the whole paper. By late afternoon, the online version of the story had been picked up by Yahoo! News, and my photo was among those circulating on the Yahoo! homepage. Pandemonium ensued.
My phone began ringing off the hook. Other writers were calling, wanting advice or simply to get together for coffee. Other reporters were calling, wanting interviews. (I changed my number to an unlisted one immediately!) My website email inbox was accumulating emails faster than I could scroll down the page. My colleagues were incredulous, as most of them had no idea I’d written a novel years before and had recently, casually decided to self-publish it. Several of my clients emailed, sending me links to the article and saying things like, “Oh my God, is this you?” Laurie was fielding phone calls from publishing companies and film studios. My family and my closest friends, scattered in a half dozen states across the country, were calling and emailing ecstatic messages of support.
I was a quivering mess. All I could do was sit and hug my son. I knew that things had changed permanently for me at that point.
Within a few weeks, I received an offer from Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, to write two new novels. It was an offer to make my childhood dream a reality. The question was, could I continue to work as an attorney and write books in my spare time? Or, did I have to choose between the two?
I loved my legal career and the many colleagues with whom I’d worked for more than a decade. But I knew that I couldn’t live the rest of my life wondering whether I could have had a successful career as a writer, and there was no way I could give writing my best shot if I was constrained by the restrictions that applied to me as an employee of the federal government. It was a difficult decision, but I resigned my attorney position to write full-time in March 2012.
To date, The Mill River Recluse has sold more than 700,000 electronic copies and has been or will be published in nine foreign languages, in addition to its publication in English. The story of its self-publication as an e-book was featured in a documentary film called “Out of Print,” which was directed by Vivienne Roumani-Denn and narrated by Meryl Streep. But now, finally, I feel as if the roller coaster has slowed, and my life is returning to normal. A new normal.
In the short time that I’ve been a writer—which is a description of myself that I’m still getting used to—I’ve learned a few things. First, you should always expect the unexpected. And, there is sometimes more than one path that will enable you to achieve a dream. For me, being able to get my first novel in front of readers changed my career and my life. I will always be grateful for every person who reads The Mill River Recluse, especially those first e-book readers who gave it a chance and took the time to review it, mention it to a friend, or send me a note of encouragement. Those readers—my readers—made my dream of being an author come true. I only hope that this first novel and my future books return to them—and to you—the same great happiness and enjoyment I have experienced in writing them.
My very best wishes,