AGENTS TOLD LISA GENOVA, a Chatham, Massachusetts, native who has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, that she should write nonfiction. But Genova was determined to forge ahead with her novel about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice. She sent a copy of the manuscript to the National Alzheimer’s Association.

“This was the beginning of my marketing,” she says. “There are five million Americans who have the disease, and they have children and wives and husbands and grandchildren and people who are deeply affected by this. So I knew that there was an audience.”

The association gave the novel — and Genova — their seal of approval by offering to help her promote it, contributing an all-important blurb for the cover, and asking her to blog for them. It was a sturdy foundation for her publishing platform. She continued to reach out, mostly online, to people in the Alzheimer’s and medical communities. She published her book on iUniverse in July 2007, and between sales from speaking engagements, online sites, and even the trunk of her car, Genova moved 1,300 books in 10 months. “By January of 2008, I had received [lots of online] reviews, and independent book stores were picking it as staff picks,” she says. “Alzheimer Association chapters were finding out about it and asking me to give keynote speeches at their conferences, and that was huge.”

Then, still determined to get a traditional publisher to notice her — and inspired by a Boston Globe story about self-published author Brunonia Barry, who went on to get a $2 million publishing deal — Genova shelled out four figures to hire a public- relations firm for a three-month publicity push.

The PR firm made sure the book landed in the hands of influential reviewers. Agents and publishing houses finally took notice. Simon & Schuster bought Still Alice for just under a half-million dollars and published it in January 2009. By the fourth quarter of 2009, there were 410,000 copies in print.

“If I hadn’t self-published, I like to think that at some point someone would have taken the chance [on me], but maybe it wouldn’t have sold with such excitement,” Genova says. “The book deal was helped very much by the fact that the book had this level of excitement already out there.”