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Self-Published 'Lace Reader' Began As A Dream

Self-published author Brunonia Barry literally dreamed her first novel, The Lace Reader, into existence: "I had a dream that I saw a future event in a piece of lace," Barry says, "and it came true the next day."

If Barry had been able to see the future of The Lace Reader — a self-published work that she ultimately sold to a major publishing house — she probably wouldn't have believed it.

Barry's husband, Gary Ward, encouraged her to self-publish; she says if it had not been for him, the book might still be sitting in a drawer. Barry and Ward have their own software publishing business, which served as a base for the venture.

"We thought, 'We can do this, we're already publishers," Barry remembers. "It's kind of a laugh now, because you run into so many things you never anticipated."

Ward adds:

"We were emboldened by our ignorance. We knew just enough to get going, but not enough to stop us."

How'd They Do It?

Barry and Ward began by thinking local. The Lace Reader is set in Salem, Mass., and the picturesque seaside town plays a major role in the story. They went to independent bookstores and asked for the names of local book clubs that might be interested in reading a first-time author.

"The first two book clubs got just straight pages of the book ... in a box," Ward says. "We didn't have any real printed books yet."

Hilary Emerson Lay, manager of the Spirit of '76 bookstore in Marblehead, Mass., calls Barry and Ward's marketing efforts "revolutionary." She says Barry was genuinely interested in hearing how readers reacted to the book, and believes that the author's involvement with local book clubs helped generate a genuine interest in The Lace Reader.

"I've never known an author to come and give me an early draft of the book and say, 'I really want to know what you think,'" Lay says.

Eventually, Barry and Ward printed 2,000 copies of the book. Local bookstores talked it up, and word spread between book clubs around the country. Booksellers also helped Barry make important contacts in the publishing world that led to The Lace Reader receiving a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

The larger world of publishing and film began to take notice.

'This Book Was Different'

Self-publishing is still risky business — Rebecca Oliver, a literary agent with Endeavor talent agency, says people in the publishing world often assume that self-published books aren't up to the industry's standards.

"When I started reading The Lace Reader," Oliver says, "it was so clear that this book ... was different."

Oliver became Barry's agent and put the book out for auction in fall 2007. Before the bidding even got off the ground, Oliver turned down a seven-figure offer.

"The first bid came in, and Gary and I said, 'Yes we'll take it,'" Barry remembers. "And [Oliver] said, 'I don't think so.'"

Oliver doesn't turn down large offers lightly, but she was convinced the book could bring in a higher bid.

"People who were reading this book were falling in love with it," Oliver says. "I thought: We've just got to see this through to the end."

In the end, three major publishing houses were bidding on the book, and Barry was able to choose the one she liked best. She signed with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, for a deal that is reportedly worth more than $2 million.

"I remember walking around our living room ... putting my hand on my forehead, stumbling around saying, 'What just happened to us?'" Ward recalls.

In addition to the original deal, the rights to the book have also been sold in more than 20 countries, and there is interest in adapting the story into a film. Barry says the whole experience is a fantasy come true. But Ward cautions that his wife's experience with self-publishing isn't typical; some of the old prejudices are fading he says, but it's still a tough road.

"The process is a little more democratic today," Oliver says. "But it's awfully, awfully competitive, and I wouldn't want anyone to spend their life savings or anything like that, saying, 'I'm going to get The Lace Reader type deal.'"

Barry and Ward say that luck played a big role in their success, and — just like a delicate piece of lace — the whole thing could have unraveled if even one thread had been out of place.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.