Author is a winner in the Amazon war

  • Article by: BROOKS BARNES , New York Times
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 1:37 PM

TV host Stephen Colbert’s campaign puts novelist and her book in spotlight.

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Edan Lepucki was surrounded by copies of her novel, “California,” during a book signing last week at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.

Photo: Leah Nash • New York Times,

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– 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 bestseller list. 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 arrived 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, Ore., last week to sign 10,000 copies of her novel for independent superstore Powell’s Books, where “California” hit No. 1 on the bestseller 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.”

Tale with a twist

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 preorders. 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.

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