This Author Won $25,000 For a Novel That Publishers Turned Down

Sergio De La Pava’s 700-page novel, A Naked Singularity, started out as a hidden gem, but has become an impressive critical success. The book was originally self-published through Xlibris, a print-on-demand company, but the University of Chicago later picked it up, and last week, De La Pava won the $25,000 Robert W. Bingham Prize from the PEN American Center. De La Pava is now negotiating translations and film rights, and has obtained a deal for a second self-published novel, Personae, which will come out in October. De La Pava's triumph brings up questions about exactly who curates what we read, and emphasizes the importance of digital self-publishing.

Traditional publishing houses have been scrambling to catch up with the online publishing world, as they tend to publish formulaic bestsellers, rather than gambling with on innovative manuscripts. At the Reuters Global Media Summit in 2011, Penguin Group CEO John Makison said of publishing industry, "This is a business which has always been driven very much by supply rather than demand factors. Consumer taste doesn't actually change all that much but what does change is the availability of books in different channels."

Digital self-publishing allows a greater number of manuscripts to circulate and prove their market worthiness before they're picked up by editors. As self-publishing has become easier, it's also become more common; the number of self-published books has tripled since 2006. Self-publishing success stories have been increasing, as well. Ebooks currently have about 20% of the market, and authors like Amanda Hocking have made millions by self-publishing online. Blogs like Wise, Ink offer authors encouragement and advice on how to publicize their self-published work, with articles like "Why Social Media isn’t as Scary as You Think" and "Make Amazon Work For You."

The advent of self-publishing parallels the rise of a number of independent and innovative publishers. Dave Egger’s much-lauded McSweeney’s publishing house claims to have begun in 1998 as "a literary journal that published only works rejected by other magazines." Concord Free Press is attempting to remove commercial pressures from publishing by printing small runs of paperbacks and giving them away for free; its motto is, "free their books and their minds will follow." The website Brain Pickings has collected a list of seven additional innovative publication platforms that allow access to nonfiction, fiction, and "risky, socially charged, misbehaving stuff."

John Thompson’s book, Merchants of Culture, which came out in 2010 through Polity Press, provides an analysis of the economic and technological shifts that have been forcing publishers to adapt to what it considers, "perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg." De La Pava’s digital-to-print success is indicative of the changing landscape of literature, and a reminder that not just editors, but readers should be looking toward digital and self-published works.

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Katie Bellamy Mitchell

A Washington, DC native and a student at Georgetown University studying English and Philosophy. Writer, artist, and fellow at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Research in Mumbai (2010) on outsourcing and cross-culture adaptation, and in Athens (2013) on poetic response to fiscal crisis. Serious wanderer, hiker, and food-lover.

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