When you have a well-paying job in high-tech public relations and an expensive apartment in San Francisco to pay for, it may not be the best idea to quit your job to chase your dream of being a novelist.
However, that’s exactly what Palo Alto native Maria Murnane did, just about three years ago. Today, she says it was the best decision she ever made.
Murnane is now a successful author, with one novel, Perfect on Paper, under her belt, and two more on the way. She has publishing contracts with both Amazon Encore and Random House, and has an agent shopping Perfect on Paper to Hollywood film studios. She regularly receives invitations for high-profile speaking engagements all over the country.
“My book is right there on the shelves right next to James Patterson, which is nuts,” Murnane says. “It’s so cool.”
Sometimes, it pays to follow your dreams.
The Book that Might Never Have Been
Murnane grew up in Palo Alto with her family, who still live in town. She graduated from and , and loved growing up in the area—in fact, she said, Palo Alto’s Waverley Street helped inspire the name of her novel’s heroine, Waverly Bryson.
Though she had a successful career in public relations, Murnane had the dream of a novel about a girl not so different from herself, living inside her, begging to get out.
The character of Waverly Bryson is a single 20- or 30-something girl, living in the same neighborhood in San Francisco Murnane lived in at the time, working in a similar career in sports public relations and trying to navigate the complicated world of finding Mr. Right, while wading through all the Mr. Wrongs.
Waverly’s story is full of both the dramatic, emotional moments and hilarious, ironic moments that most any single girl finds herself in, at one point or another, while desperately trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to do with her life.
Much like Murnane, Waverly Bryson quits her job in public relations to pursue her dream career. In the book, Waverly starts her own line of witty greeting cards for women, called “Honey Notes.”
One day, Murnane finally decided to leave the job that wasn’t making her happy.
“I finally admitted I hated my job, and I went to Argentina,” she recalls. “I got a job playing soccer and wrote much of the novel there.
“That’s how it all started. It was really scary, but I just needed a change, and it took me going to another continent to realize that.”
The trip that was meant to last just a week ended up lasting a year. Then, Murnane finally came home, and started doing freelance public relations writing and consulting, while finishing up her novel.
“I spent many afternoons at the on Middlefield Road, writing the book,” she recalls.
Once the novel was finished, she started shopping it around.
Staying Strong through All the Rejections
At first, Murnane thought she had struck gold when a literary agent agreed to take her on and shop Perfect on Paper to publishing houses.
“Trying to get an agent is really hard, because most of them get over 10,000 submissions a year. So, most of them only take on a few each year,” Murnane explained. “But, she loved my book and thought it was hilarious and that she could help me get a publishing deal.”
Unfortunately, the relationship didn’t pan out. After pounding the pavement on Murnane’s behalf for some time, the agent couldn’t find any company that wanted to publish Perfect on Paper. The agent eventually said she had to let Murnane go, as a client.
“And, once you have an agent who ‘fires’ you, then no other agent wants to pick you up,” Murnane explained. “So, that was really depressing.”
Fortunately, though, many of the companies that rejected her book gave feedback and constructive criticism. So, Murnane spent the next six months re-writing the book in hopes of making another go at it. She even held her own focus groups, inviting friends and other acquaintances to read the book and offer ideas on ways she could improve it.
Eventually, Murnane was ready to try again. She attended a large writer’s conference, where she was given the opportunity to pitch her book to publishing companies and literary agents. She walked away with seven promises from industry professionals who said they definitely wanted to read her book and would contact her to let her know if they were interested in either publishing Perfect on Paper, or representing it.
One by one, all seven contacted her back to say they could not take a chance on her book.
“Basically, everyone said they liked the book, but that the genre just wasn’t selling well right now, so they couldn’t take on a new, unknown author,” Murnane said.
Despite so many rejections, Murnane was still determined that the story of Perfect on Paper was meant to be out there in the world, in book form, one way or another.
She decided it was time to publish the book herself.
From Self-Published Author to Book Contract
Now it was time to hit the ground running. Murnane started a grassroots, guerrilla-marketing campaign, with the help of her family, to get her book noticed.
Barely two years later, Murnane would be sought after and in high demand, in order to tell the story of how she promoted her book and caught the attention of publishers, journalists and bloggers all over the world.
Murnane figured that one of the best ways to get her book noticed was to build up a strong number of positive reviews on Amazon.
“I spent about a year, doing all sorts of outreach, just going out and trying to get people to read my book,” she recalls. “When people would say, ‘I loved it,’ I asked them to please write a review on Amazon.”
With the help of her father, Murnane also started contacting “professional reviewers”—people who spend a lot of time reading and reviewing books on Amazon, independently—to ask if they would like a free copy of her book in exchange for a review on Amazon after they read it.
“I targeted ones that had reviewed a lot of books in my genre. My dad really helped me do this,” she explained. “We kind of rolled the dice, and several women emailed back that they’d be willing to do it. Eventually, I started getting all these five-star reviews on Amazon.”
Word started to spread, and literary bloggers started picking up on the book. Many read the book and reviewed it in their blogs or on their websites, and some even posted blurbs mentioning that Murnane was looking for more people to review the book on Amazon.
“I’d say, within about a year, I had 100 to 105 five-star reviews,” she said. “Most people said, they couldn’t believe my book hadn’t been published.”
Murnane also started contacting many book clubs in the area, finding them on sites like Craigslist and Meetup.com, inviting them to read the book and offering to speak at their meetings if they did.
Being an graduate of University of California, Berkeley, where she was a member of the sorority Delta Gamma, Murnane also began contacting various chapters of the sorority across the country, asking them to please put blurbs in their alumni newsletters, or offering to speak about her book at chapter meetings.
Murnane also visited several shops in her San Francisco neighborhood, asking shop owners if they would be interested in selling her book in their stores, as they were located in the same neighborhood the book took place in. Five shop owners agreed, after reading the book and liking it.
Next, Murnane and her father, Mike Murnane, hit the literary awards circuit. Together, they submitted the book for several awards. For every single award they applied for, Perfect on Paper was either a finalist or a winner, such as in the National Indie Excellence Awards, the National Best Book Award, the DIY Book Festival, the Book Bloggers Top 10 Awards, and many more.
After roughly one year of tirelessly self-promoting her book in manners such as these, Murnane got the call she had been dreaming about.
Amazon Publishing Comes Calling
One day, Murnane came home to a cryptic message on her answering machine.
It was a man from Amazon, saying he was impressed by all the five-star reviews of her book, and that he had a sure-fire way he could help her book gain more attention.
Murnane was skeptical.
“I thought he was trying to sell me some sort of paid marketing or advertising deal on Amazon,” she recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t even know how he had gotten my phone number.”
So, she dodged his call. When he called again a few days later and left another message, she finally decided to call him back, ready to “cut him off from the start” and let him know she had no money for anything like that.
However, what he really wanted was to offer her a publishing deal.
Amazon had decided to start its own publishing division, called Amazon Encore, specifically for “self-published books they felt had gone overlooked.” After reading and reviewing more than 10,000 books, Amazon executives had chosen three books to start with.
Perfect on Paper was one of them.
What happened next was a surreal sort of whirlwind for Murnane. Over the next three months, a professional design team created some amazing cover art for her novel, and repackaged everything. USA Today ran a feature story on Amazon’s new foray into publishing, with a piece on each of the three books they were putting out.
Murnane was finally able to stop her freelance public relations consulting and focus on being an author, full time.
… And the Offers Keep Rolling In
Since the day in early 2010 when Perfect on Paper came out in print through Amazon Encore, life has just gotten better and better for Murnane.
Sales and attention for the book have been very positive. Shortly after publishing the first three books, Amazon Encore signed a distribution deal with CVS pharmacies, and Perfect on Paper has been flying off the shelves at the roughly 3,000 stores across the country. Today, Amazon Encore is considering deals with more retail outlets.
Random House publishing houses overseas in both Germany and Hungary have published versions of the book. And, Murnane was recently contacted by a film rights agent who thinks Perfect on Paper would make a great romantic comedy movie, and is now shopping the book to Hollywood film studios.
In addition, Murnane has become a famous face of sorts—CreateSpace, the self-publishing company she went through to get Perfect on Paper out in the beginning, has made Murnane their poster girl for self-publishing success stories. Plus, offers have continuously poured in for professional speaking engagements across the country, at high-profile venues like Harvard University, UC Berkeley, the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, the Texas Conference for Women, the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston, and many more. All of them want Murnane to share her inspiring, “never-give-up” story with them, as well as gain some of her valuable tips for self- marketing and promotion.
“At first, I didn’t want to broadcast the fact that I’d been rejected so many times, because it was pretty embarrassing,” she admits. “But then, once I did, people were really supportive, and wanted to read my book.”
In fact, her advice is in such high demand, that Murnane has started hosting her own “webinars” on her website, MariaMurnane.com, to offer help to others out there who dream of another life or career like she did, but just don’t know where to begin, and to teach people about self-publishing and how to market their books.
“I teach, here’s how I did it, and here’s how you can do it too,” she said.
And, now that Perfect on Paper is a hit, Murnane has begun work on two more Waverly Bryson novels—It’s A Waverly Life is slated for release by Amazon Encore on Nov. 8, and she is already halfway through writing a third novel.
Murnane also launched her own line of merchandise based on some of main character Waverly Bryson’s witty sayings, such as tote bags and tee-shirts with quotes from the book, as well as a line of the “Honey Notes” greeting cards based on the ones the character creates in the story. Her merchandising site is HoneyNotes.com.
All in all, life is pretty sweet for Maria Murnane these days, and her family couldn’t be happier for her.
“I think it’s fantastic,” says Flo Murnane, her mother, who lives with Maria’s father in the Midtown neighborhood of Palo Alto, near Oregon Expressway and Greer. “She just has so much courage to do what she’s doing. She came off a really great job to do what she’s doing, so I think she’s just a real inspiration to people. There’s a lot of people out there who would love to do what she’s doing.”
Best of all, Flo says, she really enjoys her daughter’s novels and can’t wait for the release of the second and third books.
“I remember sitting up ‘till 4 in the morning reading the first draft [of Perfect on Paper], just laughing and laughing,” she recalls. “I’m just so proud of her.”
Murnane says she will hold release parties for the It’s a Waverly Life sequel in the Bay Area, most likely, one in Palo Alto and one in San Francisco, sometime in November or December.
For more information, or to sign up for Maria Murnane’s newsletter for all the latest book and speaking engagement news, visitMariaMurnane.com.