Little Guy Hits It Big After 20 Smackdowns

There’s always a bit of a mystery when a “small” book hits it big. Who knows, for example, exactly why a sappy memoir by a then demi-celeb sportswriter named Mitch Albom- Tuesdays with Morrie -became a blockbuster? Or how a quirky novel by a little-known memoirist, Alice Sebold, turned into the phenomenon The Lovely Bones ? Or, for that matter, who could have predicted that Dan Brown-who’d published several decidedlymid-list novels-would break out with The Da Vinci Code ? The romantics among us might say that they’re just good books, or at least books that naturally have a wide appeal; the more seasoned credit successes like these to large publishers (Doubleday; Little, Brown; andDoubleday again) with plenty of marketing experience and publicity dollars to spend.

But the book of the moment, Matthew Sharpe’s stunning, offbeat coming-of-age novel, The Sleeping Father , a tale of two teenagers whose father has recently come out of a coma, had neither of the above. Rejected by more than 20 major publishers, Sharpe’s third book-his first two, Stories from the Tube and Nothing Is Terrible , were published by Villard, which passed on this one-was bought by tiny, Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press for an advance of $1,000. The publisher, which employs five people in various part-time arrangements, has no publicity or marketing budget to speak of. What’s more, the book is a paperback original-and paperbacks traditionally get next to no space in rapidly shrinking review vehicles. Still, The Sleeping Father received a full-page rave in The New York Times Book Review -and four weeks in a coveted “And Bear in Mind” slot-and a mention, also in The Times , by the novelist Anne Tyler. The novelist Susan Isaacs chose it for the February Today show Book Club pick, and as of last week, it has gone into a third printing, bringing the total to almost 40,000. As of this writing, it’s the 548th best-selling book on Amazon.com.

This kind of success almost never happens in contemporary publishing. While many paperback originals-Downtown Press’ Chick-lit series, for example-sell reasonably well, I can think of only two that broke out: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City , which spawned a whole genre, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies , which won a Pulitzer Prize. And while out-of-the-mainstream publishers occasionally produce a best-seller like Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Time Traveler’s Wife , most of the books you know about come from the same old New York biggies.

So The Sleeping Father is an interesting case-especially when you factor in that until late 2001, Soft Skull was best known, if it was known at all, for re-releasing the scandal-ridden George W. Bush biography, Fortunate Son . Why, then, has The Sleeping Father made such noise?

The answer, of course, is as complex as the book itself, and involves at least as many characters. There’s the tireless agent, Collins McCormick’s Leslie Falk, a fan of Sharpe’s underread earlier works, who represented the book along with her boss, David McCormick; there’s the eagle-eyed journalists, outgoing NYTBR head Chip McGrath, and his editor, Alida Becker, who, Mr. McGrath said, “picked up on” the book early on. There’s the Irish-born theater-director-turned-publisher Richard Nash, who in late 2001 stepped in to take care of Soft Skull’s disastrous finances and “by default” became the publisher. And, of course, there’s Matthew Sharpe himself, who, after all, wrote the “perfect book” that Mr. Nash bought.

But this being publishing, there’s also a moral to the story, a moral that is one part David and Goliath and one part The Little Engine That Could . While Mr. Sharpe is quick to credit Villard editor Bruce Tracy-who, he says, sent him a note after The Sleeping Father was picked by the Today show-for “launching my career,” there has to be at least a little glee that the book Mr. Tracy rejected is the one that took off. (Mr. Tracy did not return a call for comment.) “I hate to hearken back to the old days,” said one established novelist who admires Mr. Sharpe’s work, “but publishers used to nurture authors, not toss them aside after one novel.” Or, as Mr. Nash puts it, the story of The Sleeping Father ‘s publication is practically mythic. “The two-book deal with a big publisher is supposed to be the Holy Grail,” he said. “But it turned out, in this case, that the Grail was made of bronze.” In the end, it took a tiny publisher to restore Mr. Sharpe’s luster.