Nobody expected much from Edan Lepucki’s debut novel. Her publisher planned a tiny first printing of 12,000 copies. She was assigned to an editor with almost no experience. Was there a marketing budget? How cute of her to ask.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Lepucki, 33, won the literary lotto.
A few weeks ago, late night television host Stephen Colbert began attacking Amazon for discouraging customers from buying titles from his publisher, Hachette Book Group. But Colbert picked another Hachette author – a startled Lepucki – as the focal point of his campaign against Amazon.
“We will not lick their monopoly boot,” he said of Amazon on The Colbert Report before exhorting viewers to pre-order Lepucki’s post-apocalyptic California from independent bookstores. The Amazon-Hachette brawl, Colbert explained, “is toughest on young authors who are being published for the first time.”
Lepucki, watching TV at home in suburban San Francisco, watched Colbert hold up California with a mixture of elation and nausea. (She had been alerted a few hours in advance to watch.) And then he did it again a few nights later, this time challenging viewers to buy enough copies to get the novel on the New York Times best-seller list. (It is not there yet.) He also recommended California to his 6.6 million Twitter followers.
“I felt kind of icky to be benefiting from this fight,” Lepucki said. “At the same time, the opportunity to reach readers is a fantasy.”
“I did still wonder whether anyone would care,” she added.
Oh, they care. California, which arrives Tuesday, is now one of the most pre-ordered debut titles in Hachette history, according to a company spokeswoman. Lepucki’s agent is negotiating rights with producer Gregg Fienberg and Killer Films. Little, Brown and Co., the Hachette division behind California, has increased the initial print order and doubled the length of her author tour.
Lepucki found herself in Portland, Oregon, this week to sign 10,000 copies of her novel for independent superstore Powell’s Books, where California hit No. 1 on the best-seller list after Colbert directed viewers there.
“Occasionally, my brain would overheat, and I’d forget how to write,” she said of her signing session. “My signature is like a squished spider.”
How Lepucki ended up as perhaps the only author to benefit from the Amazon-Hachette spat over pricing is a tale of almost unbelievable luck. And it has a twist: Her husband, Patrick Brown, is employed, in a sense, by Amazon. He works for Goodreads, a social network and peer recommendation engine for books; Amazon acquired it last year.
“Amazon has historically been a bully, and I don’t shop there,” Lepucki said. “But I love Goodreads. For the record. And my marriage.”
Colbert’s promotion of California started with Sherman Alexie, an anti-Amazonian and National Book Award winner for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Colbert invited Alexie on his show and asked him to bring a book by an author penalized by Amazon’s refusal to take Hachette pre-orders. Alexie said that he asked Hachette for a few advance copies of books by debut authors to peruse.
California was on the top of the stack. “I honestly suspected it wasn’t going to be my kind of book – too earnest,” Alexie said in a telephone interview. “But I started reading it, and it turned out to be an earnest page turner.”
With its post-apocalyptic setting, California mines a very busy vein in contemporary fiction. But Lepucki sees it as a love story. A young couple, Frida and Cal, have fled the ruins of Los Angeles to make a home in the wilderness. Everything changes when Frida becomes pregnant, and they leave isolation for a strange settlement filled with threats.
It seems impossible that a story with such dark undercurrents could spring from someone so laid-back and gregarious.
Over breakfast in Los Angeles, where she grew up, the freckled Lepucki displayed a surferish vibe, right down to the wet blond hair that she twisted to the side as she spoke. Still, her eyes, which are a striking shade of blue, had a tendency to flash mischievously.
“I have a darker imagination than most people,” she said. “If you don’t ponder the end of the world on a regular basis, I don’t think you’re really human.”
Lepucki winced when asked if the couple in California is modeled on her and her husband. It is an easy guess to make, especially since she became pregnant with their three-year-old son, Dixon Bean, while writing.
But no. “I’m madly in love with my husband, but it’s not us,” she said. “People seem to hate Frida, so I hope I’m not her.” (Her mother-in-law’s response to the book: “I’m sad she killed me in a blizzard.”)
Lepucki is a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles, which has drawn 1,300 participants since it began in 2008. She is also known in book circles as a writer for The Millions, a highbrow literary website.
California is actually her second novel. But the first, a disturbing story about teenage girls that her agent, Erin Hosier, called “the novel equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie,” failed to sell to a publisher.
“It was overly ambitious,” Hosier said. “We finally stopped trying to sell it, because the rejection became too embarrassing and painful.”
That put more pressure on California.
“You really can’t fail twice in a row if you have her credentials,” Hosier said.
Even before the boost from Colbert, California was receiving praise from respected novelists like Jennifer Egan and Ben Fountain and popping up on summer reading lists. Little, Brown ultimately printed 60,000 hardcovers.
But insta-fame feels more than a little weird, and she confessed to feeling awkward about the experience of being interviewed.
She had another confession to make, too: Yes, she shuns Amazon, but just to be honest she did once buy a tin of Bag Balm, a salve first developed to soothe cow udders.
“I had a chapped elbow,” she explained.
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