Darcie Chan's miracle book
Sunday, for the first time in some weeks, I was able to read the New York Times Book Review section at leisure, to find, to my surprise, that the bestsellers listing has evolved to include both print and eBooks. Perusing this new version of the fiction bestsellers list, I discovered not one, but two eBooks featured -- Darcie Chan's The Mill River Recluse, at number 3, and Chris Culver's The Abbey at number 6.
This is an astonishing development, and one that must be giving traditional publishers and editors much pause for thought. Darcie Chan (pictured) is not just a debut author, but is self-published -- simply because even a dedicated top New York agent couldn't find publisher interest in the manuscript. Her book is still not available in print. It has never been professionally edited. It has not been reviewed in any of the illustrious newspapers or journals. And yet, The Mill River Recluse is a rampant bestseller, currently #2 on paid Kindle.
It's easy, I suppose, to find reasons for the traditional publishers' dogged refusal to take a punt on the book. Chan's novel does not feature vampires, or serial killers, or grotesque autopsies -- it does not belong to any genre at all. Worse still, it is literary. The protagonist is an ordinary woman -- a widow, Mary McAllister. Disfigured both mentally and physically by her abusive husband, Mary hides from the world in a white marble mansion on a hill overlooking Mill River, Vermont. An arsonist, a greedy nurse, the village idiot, and a doddery priest are the only people who see her, while just a few newcomers to the village express curiosity about the recluse. And, what's more, the novel begins on the last day of her life. Not a promising scenario, for a publisher who has to make a guess about likely sales. But how galling to find that the guess was so wrong!
An excellent interview with Christopher Meeks reveals the story behind the novel.
After about three years hard slog on the book, Chan confides, her goal was to have it traditionally published, and so she went about it the traditional way, sending out query letters to agents. Four asked to see the full manuscript, and she was signed up by Laurie Liss of Sterling Lord Literistic.
This was a wonderful development. Liss, one of the best-regarded agents around, was hugely enthusiastic. But, despite her valiant efforts, she couldn't get anyone interested. So, Darcie Chan sighed, accepted fate, saved the ms to her hard drive, and went on with life.
But then came eBooks. "I started reading articles about writers who were so successful with their eBook sales that they established readerships and attracted the attention of trade publishers." Perhaps, she thought, that was the way to go. Even after all those rejections, she felt that there might be people out there who would enjoy reading Recluse.
Laurie Liss, consulted, thought that might be the way to go, too. Accordingly, Darcie Chan uploaded the book to Kindle Store on May 18, and the Nook Store in June, though with no great expectations at all. The price, originally $2.99, was dropped to 99 cents, to try to entice a few customers. The news that 100 books had sold led to a family celebration. That would be it, she thought -- but in August Recluse hit the top ten of the Kindle Store, and everything has been wild since then.
So what will happen next? A big offer from a traditional publisher, a la Amanda Hocking? Reviews in the serious journals? Recognition of Darcie Chan as the new Elizabeth Strout? Literary prizes?
Only the future will tell. Meantime, however, the story of Darcie Chan's remarkable feat will give new heart to thousands of struggling writers.