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Jane's Heir 

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his is a story that should not have happened. Pamela Aidan, a librarian formerly from Georgia and a long-time Jane Austen aficionado, should not be on tour with her book, supported by her national publisher and her New York agent -- and her husband in North Idaho, whom she met because of writing the book. Fans don't sell 70,000 copies of their first writing efforts online and land a national book contract. Do they?





"It's a fairy tale," Aidan says. "I continue to be amazed."





It all started a decade ago, soon after the airing of the 1995 BBC/A & amp;E production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published originally in 1813. Aidan, like many other Austen fans, loved the series and was taken especially by Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy, the haughty hero who's irresistibly attracted to the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet. While Austen's prose draws Darcy rather sketchily, Firth played him as a man with hidden depths and smoldering passion.





"His interpretation of Darcy inspired a lot of women's imaginations," laughs Aidan.





Many Austen fan websites sprang up following the 1996 airing of the serial stateside. The sites offered fans a place to chat with others about the film; many also had forums for fan fiction -- sequels or retellings of Austen's original tale written by fans for fans. Fan fiction has been around for a long time, especially in the realm of sci-fi franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars, but the Internet made it easier for fans to connect with others who can't get enough of the characters and worlds they love. Aidan plugged into Austen fandom online.





"I'd always loved Pride and Prejudice and I thought [the 1995 BBC] version was very well done," she says. "I happened across these websites and read some of the fan fiction and thought, 'Gee, I can do this.'"





Intrigued by Firth's Darcy, Aidan wrote a short piece called "Be Not Alarmed, Madam" from Darcy's perspective. The title is taken from the opening of the letter written by Darcy to Elizabeth after she has rejected his first marriage proposal.





"The idea was to look at him as he was writing it and getting ready to deliver it -- his thought process, how he was feeling, and so on," she explains.





She posted the story at two fan websites and received an overwhelmingly positive response, inspiring her to go back to the beginning of the story and retell it all from Darcy's point of view. As she wrote, she'd post about five pages at a time online, so other fans read along and offered feedback during the creative process.





Eventually, she established her own website and posted the chapters there; the tracking statistics convinced her that she had something people wanted. She finished the first novel in 1998 and began another; finishing the second in 2000, she started a third.





"By that time, I was convinced it would do all right as a printed novel," she says. "I'm a librarian, so I know a bit about the publishing world. I know it's difficult to get a foot in the door, and it can take years for a book to see the light of day."





She looked into vanity presses and print-on-demand companies and finally decided to become her own publisher, forming Wytherngate Press with her husband. (More on him later.) They produced the first book in the fall of 2003.





That's when things took a turn for the incredible. Lightning Source, the company that prints Aidan's books, is the print-on-demand subsidiary of Ingram, the big book distribution company; Ingram automatically adds all Lightning Source titles to Amazon.com and Barnes & amp; Noble online. As each book in the trilogy came into print, it was found and scooped up by Austen fans worldwide. Before long, Aidan had sold 70,000 books.





It was about then that Simon & amp; Schuster phoned, saying they wanted to buy her books. She hired a New York publishing attorney to help with contract issues. "He said nobody had ever sold this many books as a self-published book," says Aidan. "He's now my agent."





That would be enough for any fairy tale, but there's a rather Austenesque sidebar to the story as well. While Aidan was living in Georgia and posting her early writing online, she began to receive e-mail from fans. Most of the letters came from women readers, so she was surprised to get a letter from a man who had read her work.





"He said he really liked it and he thanked me for writing something enjoyable," she says, "but he also told me some things I got wrong."





She wrote back thanking him for the critique, because she sought to improve as a writer. About a week later, he sent another letter -- this time in the voice of Mr. Darcy.





"Here's the character, talking to me!" she says. "I wrote back in the same vein. Afterwards, we had a regular correspondence."





The letter writing went on for four years. Finally, Aidan traveled to North Idaho to meet her correspondent. "When we were actually face to face for the first time, I just fell in love," she says. Soon she packed up and moved to Coeur d'Alene and they married. She's now the director of the Liberty Lake Municipal Library.





"I didn't start out to do all this," she says. "I've been appreciative of everything that's come my way."





Pamela Aidan reads from These Three Remain at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave., on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 7:30 pm, and at Borders Books, 450 W. Wilbur Ave. in Coeur d'Alene, on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 2 pm. Call 838-0206 or (208) 762-4497.

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