There's a stigma about self-publishing that suggests it's what a writer does only when, for whatever reason, he can't get anyone else to take his manuscript seriously. After all, anybody can self-publish, right? David Farland, describing the experience of an author friend, put it this way: "He was talking to his next-door neighbor, who's a 14-year-old boy, and the kid said, 'Yeah, I'm a published author, too.' "
So why would St. George resident Farland, who's written several New York Times best-selling fantasy and science fiction novels, decide to figuratively take his life in his hands and publish his newest tale himself? The book in question is "Nightingale," a young adult title about a teenage boy with very unusual special abilities. At first, Farland assumed he'd send the manuscript out the way he always had before.
"I got an agent," he said. "She was very excited about it." (That excitement is catching: Earlier this month "Nightingale" nabbed the grand prize at the Hollywood Book Festival in Los Angeles, and it's also been named a finalist for Best Young Adult Novel in the 2012 Global eBook Awards.)
And then Farland took a long look at the rapidly evolving world of publishing. As publishers rush to catch up to readers' burgeoning attachment to various electronic gadgets, ink-and-paper books are increasingly being pushed aside by all-digital e-books, a format that has quickly become a bone of contention between writers and publishers.
"I love my publishers," Farland said. "I just looked at it and thought, 'Ten or 15 years down the line, do I want to be stuck with a traditional contract?' "
Self-publishing is not an entirely new arena for the 55-year-old Farland. In 2009, he self-published the historical novel "In the Company of Angels," about the ill-starred handcart emigration to Utah by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day. (Farland, who has also been published under his given surname, Wolverton, is LDS. He adopted the pseudonym Farland in 1998.)
The decision was partly inspired by Farland's mother, who had read a manuscript copy of "In the Company of Angels" before dying of cancer. "I'd been trying to help her through her cancer," he said. "She would always ask me, 'Dave, what are you doing to publish this book?' "
After "In the Company of Angels" became a strong seller and drew praise from readers and reviewers, Farland wondered whether he could do it again. And when he didn't see any offers he liked for "Nightingale," he decided to give it a try.
We three kings
Like the Harry Potter books and the "Hunger Games" trilogy, "Nightingale" falls under the increasingly sought-after label of young adult (YA) fiction. The protagonist is an orphan named Bron, who has a connection to a powerful race of superhumans living among us known as Masaaks. Farland said the idea goes back years and years to wondering about the Wise Men who visit the Christ child in the Bible.
"I started wondering about, 'Who were these wizards?' " Farland said. "What sort of powers would they have had?"
That line of thinking merged with another idea that's long been fascinating to Farland, the scientific notion that Neanderthals once inhabited Earth at the same time as more advanced forerunners to humanity. "That's always been one of my favorite concepts," he said. "Who else might there be in our world who would surpass humanity?"
That eventually led to 16-year-old Bron, who lives with a foster family in Utah. Farland worked on the manuscript for several months before sending it out to a select group of trial readers -- including two of his five children -- to get feedback. "I try to get input from people who aren't necessarily writers," Farland said. "What I mostly want to know is, 'How did this make you feel?' "
One Utah Valley resident who read the manuscript is Sabine Berlin, a Provo resident and mother of three who's studying history at Utah Valley University. "I love stories where normal kids find out they have extraordinary abilities," Berlin said, "because let's face it, who wouldn't want to learn that the thing they always thought made them weird, really made them special?"
Berlin, 36, said she enjoyed the mixture of the mundane and the fantastic in "Nightingale," and also found herself immediately drawn to Bron.
Farland said that male readers have also responded enthusiastically to Bron, which is what he'd hoped for all along. "Nightingale" is Farland's first young adult novel, and he said that he wanted to write something that would engage male readers, young and old, the way that Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" books engage female readers. (Meyer was among the students to pass beneath Farland's eye when, several years ago, he taught fiction writing at Brigham Young University.)
What's an enhanced novel?
It turns out that writing "Nightingale," which Farland released in hardcover in March via his own East India Press, was the easy part. Getting the book into readers' hands, Farland said, has proven more challenging. Among the many obstacles to taking one's own work to market is dwindling shelf space at brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Major publishers, Farland said, are putting increasing pressure on bookstores to take their output, which can make it hard for smaller operations to compete. In Utah, Farland said, he's had the most success getting his book sold at Costco and independent bookstores like the Utah-based Eborn Books chain. ("Nightingale" is also available from behemoth e-tailer Amazon.)
Darryl Broadhead, manager of the Eborn Books at Provo Towne Centre mall, said that his store does accept product from self-published authors, and that the most effective salesman is generally the author himself. "We do a lot of book signings," Broadhead said. "We get a fair amount of authors who have self-published; we always encourage them to do a book signing."
Farland is also hoping to make some inroads later this year with what he calls the "enhanced novel" edition of "Nightingale." The idea, he said, has been around for a while, though there aren't many examples of it: an enhanced novel is a digital edition that comes with music, animation, film clips, video games -- anything that you could squeeze into an iPad or other tablet-style computer.
For "Nightingale," Farland hired James Guymon, vice-president of the Composers Guild of America, to create a soundtrack. It took Guymon a while to sort out what he was even being asked to do. Eventually, he said, he realized that, "I was being asked to score someone's experience reading the written word, which happens entirely inside their own mind. This led me down some important and interesting trains of thought."
There may, at some point, be a "Nightingale" feature film -- Farland is talking with a producer -- that goes to theaters before being available for tablets. Or it may happen the other way around: Just as publishers are scrambling to make sense of the transition from ink and paper to bits and bytes, movie studios are racing to stay ahead of the switch from the big screen to handheld screens.
Maybe Farland will make and distribute the movie himself. After all, he's not the type to sit back and watch the world change around him. In addition to writing, he's coordinating judge for the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, he's a partner in a German company's $45 million online role-playing game, he teaches writing seminars (including writing a free, e-mailed "Daily Kick in the Pants" that offers advice to aspiring writers) and, yes, has just launched East India Press.
"I run on adrenaline," he said. "I figure in my family we're sort of like fruit flies. You don't have a big, long life expectancy, so you'd better get something done."