After Stephen Colbert mention, local author Edan Lepucki’s world explodes

Edan Lepucki. Photo by Bader Howar

Edan Lepucki. Photo by Bader Howar

Today is the most important day of Edan Lepucki’s professional life.

Just a month ago, she was an average debut writer, anticipating the July 8 publication of her dystopian novel California. Even though her publisher, Little, Brown had high hopes for the book – it printed 12,000 copies, a large number for a first-time novelist – there was the disturbing fact that Amazon was in a fight with Hachette, the parent company of Little, Brown.

The squabble meant that Amazon had disabled all the “pre-order” buttons on forthcoming Hachette books. It was taking Amazon two to four weeks to deliver Hachette books, instead of the regular one to three days. That did not bode well for Lepucki.

“Pre-publicity is everything,” according to Sherman Alexie, the best-selling author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award. “The fortune of a book is determined before it ever hits the shelves. Pre-publicity and presales determine the success of a book.”

But Lepucki, who lives in the East Bay, had a stroke of enormous luck. Stephen Colbert, the comedian, is also a Hachette author. He invited Alexie onto his show on June 5 to discuss the fight (which is where the above quotes come from) and then asked Alexie for a debut novel to recommend.

Alexie recommended California.

Then Colbert told his viewers to go on www.colbertnation.com and buy California through Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon.

“We are going to prove I can sell more books than Amazon.” Colbert said. (Watch the segment here.)

Those words have changed Lepucki’s life.

Over the next month, as Colbert mentioned her name and that of her novel a few more times, pre-sales rocketed. Powell’s reported that it had sold 10,000 copies of California – the most in the store’s history. The New York Times did a lengthy feature on Lepucki. California has been reviewed and recommended in dozens of newspapers and websites. (And to top it off, Lepucki had a personal essay this past Sunday in the New York Times’ Modern Love column.)

Lepucki_California

July 8 is publication day, and Lepucki is still trying to understand what has hit her. Berkeleyside spoke to her in Los Angeles, where she was getting ready for her first public reading tonight at Skylight Books.

“I feel really good today,” said Lepucki, 33. “It feels like my birthday or better. It feels like the day my son was born, but not as painful.”

But the experience of instant celebrity-hood has also been strange for a woman more comfortable in front of her computer than in front of cameras and eager journalists. Lepucki spent more than three years working on the novel and showed it to friends, as well as two of her writing mentors and teachers at Oberlin College, Dan Chaon and David Walker. Now the spotlight is intense.

“Of course, because of the Colbert thing everything is magnified,” said Lepucki. “All of a sudden you have strangers, a lot of people, reading your work. It’s wonderful and amazing, but there’s an intensity to it.”

Bay Area residents will have several chances to hear Lepucki read from California, which tells the story of a young couple, Cal and Frida, who flee a decaying Los Angeles to live in the wilderness. Their lives change when Frida becomes pregnant and they must decide whether to go it alone or seek help from others.  Lepucki will be appearing Thursday July 10 at 7:00 p.m. at Diesel Books on College Avenue in Oakland. She will also appear at one of Litquake’s “Epicenter” readings on Aug. 5 in San Francisco.

Lepucki is fairly new to the Bay Area. She grew up in Los Angeles but moved to the East Bay in January 2013 because GoodReads, the company for which her husband works, moved to San Francisco. (Ironically, Amazon owns GoodReads).

The couple and their son, Bean, now 3 (his real name is Dixon Bean Brown, named after the main character, a “lovable louse” in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim) moved to a small bungalow on the Berkeley/Albany border.

Lepucki is still getting used to the region. She enjoys the weather in the East Bay, which is significantly cooler than Los Angeles. She also likes the food, particularly the coffee at Bartavelle on San Pablo Avenue and the coffee from Local 123 served out of a kiosk at Flowerland, a nursery near the BART tracks in Albany. But her family lives in Los Angeles and Lepucki hopes to move back one day.

“I love the the ease of life here,” she said. “But I miss the size of life in LA. Berkeley is a little bit of a smaller town than LA.”

Lepucki has certainly been having a number of outsized experiences in recent weeks. She flew up to Portland in late June to sign the 10,000 copies of California sold by Powell’s. It took three days.

The staff had set the book up in a circle in the Powell’s warehouse. One staff member went around opening each book to its title page. Lepucki followed closely behind and signed each copy. Lepucki said she averaged about 1,000 signatures an hour. She signed her name so quickly the Powell’s staffers called her a robot. (See a video of the experience at the end of this story.)

“I am a book nerd,” she said. “I was so excited to go to the Powell’s warehouse. Just seeing 10,000 copies of my book was hilarious for me, and amazing. It was a thrill.”

Several times during the conversation with Berkeleyside, Lepucki kept returning to writing and books. It is clear that her work grounds her. When she graduated from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she moved back to Los Angeles with a few completed short stories, but no finished novel. Because of that, she didn’t think she would be able to get a job teaching writing. So she put up an advertisement on Craig’s List offering a writing class in her home. To her surprise, a number of people signed up. That effort evolved into the Writing Workshops Los Angeles, which now offers about forty  classes a year to hundreds of writers.

Lepucki is still running the program from the Bay Area. Much of her teaching is online and she flies to Los Angeles every so often to do weekend writing intensives.

On her publication day, Lepucki was planning to go out to lunch with a friend and then drive over to Book Soup, one of Los Angeles’ few remaining independent bookstores. Lepucki worked there when she was 19, and then for two years after college. In her honor, Book Soup has put up a huge window display of California.  Lepucki will buy a copy of her book there, as well as about five other books by her friends who are also being published today.

After a few more book talks this week, Lepucki is off to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a prestigious writing conference where she was once a student. With all the attention she has received since Colbert made her book California his anti-Amazon mantra, you can sense that Lepucki is relieved to break up her book tour with a chance to focus on the broader world of literature.

“The best way to counter publicity is to talk about books again, to talk about craft again. It’s really therapeutic.”

Watch how Lepucki signs 10,000 books in this Powell’s video:

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  • Book Club’s Next Read

    I love this story, but I’m wondering how Alexie knew about the book in the first place?

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    I think Colbert probably conferred with Hachette, telling them he wanted to do a segment, Alexie is probably a Hachette author and Hachette probably put Lepucki’s book in his hands. This is conjecture but it was planned.

  • Alina

    From the NY Times article linked above

    Mr. 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.” Mr. Colbert invited Mr. Alexie on his show and asked him to bring a book by an author penalized by Amazon’s refusal to take Hachette preorders. Mr. 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,” Mr. Alexie said in a telephone interview. “But I started reading it, and it turned out to be an earnest page turner.”

  • MMA

    From East Bay Express article, “”Beating Amazon —

    Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California gets an unlikely boost from Stephen Colbert.”http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/beating-amazon/Content?oid=4013961

    “Lepucki still isn’t quite sure how her book made it from her publisher
    to Alexie. “I don’t know exactly where along the chain of command my
    book was placed in his palm,” she said.”

    My own suspicion is that the folks at Little, Brown/Hachette both thought the book was a strong debut and the author fit well the brand they want to promote given her hard work for literary magazines, workshops, indie bookstores, etc., that they put the book in Alexie’s hands (he’s also Hachette).

  • MMA

    Nice article on this local author, though I’m not sure I like the characterization of Book Soup as, “one of Los Angeles’ few remaining independent bookstores.” To me, that seems more pessimistic than necessary, and makes it sound like L.A. is a book desert, which it isn’t. A few months back, the LA Weekly did a nice story on the “10 best” independent bookstores in L.A., indicating there are lots of great indie bookstores in the Southland (not just the 10 listed)
    See 10 Best Independent Bookstores in L.A.
    http://www.laweekly.com/publicspectacle/2014/02/18/10-best-independent-bookstores-in-la?showFullText=true

  • sunshipballoons

    What an inefficient way to do the book signing. A three-person assembly line is preferred. :)