After nearly 25 years of rejection letters and dedication, longtime valley resident Linda Lafferty is a best-selling novelist.
The retired Aspen High and Middle School teacher, and 40-year local resident, has carved out a popular niche with research-steeped fiction that spins page-turning thrillers out of historical figures.
“The Bloodletter’s Daughter,” her 2012 debut, dramatizes real life murder and romance in the Hapsburg dynasty in 17th century Europe. Lafferty found inspiration for it, she says, when a tour guide in Prague told her the story of a woman thrown out of a castle window.
Her new novel, “The Drowning Guard,” published Sept. 3, was born during a visit to Istanbul and in reading Philip Mansel’s “Constantinople.” Set in 19th century Istanbul, it centers on the murderous Ottoman princess Esma Sultan.
Both books were released by Amazon Publishing and have topped the online giant’s print and e-reader best-seller lists.
During this tumultuous time in publishing, Amazon’s expanding imprints and Kindle offerings have created a new platform where readers can discover previously unknown writers like Lafferty. Without the traditional means of publication and distribution, or publicity and reviews in the mainstream press, a sizable fan base has emerged for Lafferty.
Positive reader reviews and online Amazon promotions drove the $2 Kindle edition of “The Bloodletter’s Daughter” to Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller slot for literary fiction earlier this year — ahead, respectively, of Khaled Hosseini, John Steinbeck and Paulo Coelho. It also topped the historical fiction list and, thus far, has sold upwards of 100,000 copies.
On Friday, the book had 735 reviews posted on Amazon’s website, with an average rating of 4.3 out of five stars. In the new paradigm of Amazon Publishing, and its populace of readers, that’s something akin to a positive write-up in the New York Times book review section.
“The Drowning Guard” recently topped Amazon’s literary fiction list in the U.K.
Lafferty started sending manuscripts to publishers in 1988, and received hundreds of rejections before Amazon bought “The Bloodletter’s Daughter” last year.
“It was heartwrenching for years, going through the rejections,” Lafferty said. “What they often were saying was, ‘This is different and we don’t know how to market it.’ So, eventually, readers found it themselves.”
Her decades of writing without publishing, she said, were beneficial. She wrote and researched only for the joy of doing it, without pandering to an imaginary audience or compromising how and what she wanted to write.
A key turning point came in 1992 for Lafferty, when she received a phone call from Nan Graham. Now publisher of Scribner, Graham was then an editor at Viking Penguin for heavyweight novelists like Don DeLillo and Stephen King. Graham rejected Lafferty’s book, but offered her encouragement to keep working at the craft.
“She said, ‘I just want to call and encourage you to write,’” Lafferty recalled. “I took that to heart for years.”
Amazon has shaken up the publishing industry as it’s put out hundreds of original authors in the last two years, and made best sellers of some of them, outside the establishment of New York’s publishing houses. It offers low advances — Lafferty said she was paid $5,000 apiece for her books — but then markets books aggressively and encourages direct writer-reader communication online to boost sales.
Critics say that Amazon is undercutting and harming publishers, in the same way it wreaked havoc on bookstores and retailers. But for Lafferty, the company was a godsend.
“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the industry saying, ‘Oh, Amazon is evil,’” she said. “They took a chance on me when nobody else would.”
Lafferty is a full-time author now, generally writing in the mornings and then heading out for a cross-country ski or horseback ride — depending on the season — and returning to edit and research in the afternoons.
After Amazon bought “Bloodletter’s Daughter,” Lafferty’s agent sent the editors there manuscripts of her two other completed books. Amazon bought both.
Her next book, due out Jan. 7, is “House of Bathory.” It is her first to use Aspen as a setting. Staying true to the historical fiction thrillers that have given her success, however, it jumps between a Goth girl at Aspen High and a blood-obsessed countess in 17th century Slovakia.
She’s currently working on a fourth novel, which she hopes to publish next fall.