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Books & Ideas: An author's adventures in 'Anthropology'

For years, Hilary Thayer Hamann's unconventional novel was mired in self-published limbo, but her perseverance and belief in the novel's value helped get it picked up by a major publisher.

June 06, 2010|By Joanna Smith Rakoff, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Hilary Thayer Hamann, author of the book "Antropology of an American Girl."
Author Hilary Thayer Hamann, author of the book "Antropology of an… (Doug Young, Handout from…)

Reporting from New York —

On the day, less than two weeks ago, that Hilary Thayer Hamann's first novel arrived in bookstores, the author was anything but elated. "It's actually really nerve-racking," confessed the author of "Anthropology of an American Girl" (Spiegel & Grau: 610 pp., $26) as she slid into a chair at Pasticceria Bruno, an old-world Italian bakery in Greenwich Village near New York University. "Everyone says, 'You should be so excited! You should be so happy!' But I feel more concerned than excited." She shrugs. "I have too much knowledge."

If Hamann sounds a bit cynical, it's because she's been through this all before — literally. In 2003, she self-published this same novel, a dense and sprawling investigation of Western-style womanhood with that irresistibly grand title. In the years that followed, Hamann, who has three children, devoted her all to finding an audience. "It was just really hard to get people to buy the books," she says with a wry laugh. This time around, she has a major publisher — Spiegel & Grau is an imprint of Random House — for which she's perhaps more grateful than your average writer. "I was in the trenches," said the author, who has dark eyes and dark hair streaked with icy blond. "I'm grateful every day for all the things I don't have to do. Self-publishing requires stamina."

In mainstream literary circles, self-publishing is generally considered the exclusive realm of egomaniacs, eccentrics and failures — those who've been rejected by mainstream outlets but are too deluded to realize the worthlessness of their work. There are, certainly, those rare tales of self-publishing success. But in the past few years — as sites such as Amazon and Lulu have made it easier and cheaper — self-publishing has taken off like wildfire. Last year alone saw the self-publication of more than half a million books. Some, like Hamann's, are finding homes with traditional houses. "Publishers are taking self-published books more seriously," said Sara Nelson, books editor for O, the Oprah Magazine and former editor of Publishers Weekly. "Ten years ago it was a very rare thing that a publisher picked up a self-published book. Now it's happening more frequently." Though not all that often. Most self-published titles sell only a few handfuls of copies.

But Hamann turned to self-publishing in the spirit of entrepreneurship rather than desperation. She and her then husband, a designer, had launched a printing business. "It just made sense for us to publish it." The idea, she explains, was to turn the press into a true publisher, with "Anthropology" as their first venture. Neither Hamann nor her husband had any real background in publishing, though, and the learning curve was enormous.

"We found out that in order to get reviewed we needed to get certain long-lead magazines the book prior to publication, which we didn't understand," she said. "So we had to set the pub date back and then give them something, a galley, to review." Hamann gave the galleys creamy letterpress covers, numbered and signed like limited-edition art books. "We made 500 and we sent it everywhere, from the New York Times to Vogue to I don't know."

While no major papers reviewed the novel, some student publications, intrigued by the title and packaging — and perhaps more inclined to flip through a galley from an unknown press — wound up covering the book, favorably so. Hamann slowly built a file of reviews, which she then used to persuade bookstores to stock the book. "We literally went state by state and called every single bookstore," she explained. "We would pitch the book and ship them the sample copy, and hopefully they'd order a few, then order a few more, and that was how we moved the book." Ultimately, she sold some 5,000 copies, a respectable figure for a traditionally published first novel, much less a self-published one.

Yet by June 2007, Hamann had entered into "a dark time." The novel — as well as the one other book she and her husband had published, a compendium she edited on physics, literature and art — simply wasn't earning enough money to make the publishing venture sustainable. Hamann's staff, by this point, had dwindled to herself and seven interns: "I'd invested heavily into this, and I couldn't reprint. I couldn't maintain the staff." Then, out of nowhere, a fax arrived from a film producer interested in optioning the book. Nothing came of it, but the producer encouraged Hamann — who'd devoted much of her adult life to writing the novel, "stitching together moments" when her children were infants — to seek a mainstream publisher. Hamann sent copies to a few agents. Within a week, she'd signed with one, and a few months later, she was signing a contract with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint known both for launching literary writers such as Philipp Meyer and for more popular tomes such as Suze Orman's finance guides.

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