Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lost in Lexicon's Publishing Path. I. The Decision to Self-Publish

Yesterday I described how I came to write Lost in Lexicon. Today I will begin to describe the book's road through self-publishing to yesterday's 2nd edition launch by Scarletta Press.

As I finished the third draft, I began looking for an agent. I developed a query letter, had my colleagues critique it, and sent it out. Responses were very slow to come. Eventually I called and left a message for my agent from 15 years earlier. He didn't call back. Finally I stumbled across the name of the former editor of Little, Brown who had wanted to buy my adult manuscript so many years ago. Shortly after we knew each other, she had left publishing to start her own agency. I took a deep breath and dialed the phone. "Hello," I said. "This is Penny Noyce."

And she, bless her, said after fifteen years, "Penny! I was just thinking of you!"

I sent her the book, and she loved it. Although she primarily represents adult books, she was once a children's editor herself and still had friends in the industry, so she agreed to take on the book. Her only editorial suggestion was that I extend the ending by a couple of pages to give a fuller sense of conclusion. I thought it through, agreed, and did so. My agent developed a list of editors she thought would like be enchanted by Lexicon (as it was then called) and began to send it out.

Then came the long days of waiting. It's summer; nothing much is happening. It's holiday season (November through January); nothing much is happening. Every three weeks, as we had agree, I called my agent to follow up. Eventually rejections began to accumulate. There was a pattern to them, which we're told usually means the writer should pay attention. The book wasn't edgy or modern enough. Though the editors enjoyed language play, the book was perhaps a bit too academic. There was a lot of... math. Plot outweighed character development. The book was too didactic.

I wondered if I should cut out chapter 12, the math-iest chapter. My agent said no; we should keep trying. I worried about the depth of my characters, but the book was primarily a funny and peripatetic adventure, with a rich range of minor characters, and Ivan and Daphne do grow; I resolved we'd delve deeper into them in the next book, which I was beginning to visualize. As for the didacticism (the book is in part an allegory about how total immersion in an electronic world threatens to draw us away from childhood, family, thinking and imagination), I thought kids would find it more subtle than adults did... and in fact no kid has yet complained.

After a year and more than ten rejections, my agent told me with regret that she had tried all her best contacts, and that she feared she no longer understood the juvenile market. "I think your problem, Penny, is... you have no vampires." She asked me what I was going to do.

"I'm going to publish it myself," I said. The knowledge that if nobody snatched up the book I could always publish it myself had sustained me during the writing, the revision, and the long months of waiting for editors to respond. I wasn't gong to be passive this time and let the project die. I knew the book was of high quality and that it had something different, something that a certain swath of kids would respond to-- strong readers who needed intellectual stimulation without the emotional weight of books written for much older teens.

Still, quality is a huge question for anyone contemplating self-publishing. We have to be sure we're not deluding ourselves. Sure, we can hire an editor to help improve a manuscript and to rid it of embarrassing mistakes. But I don't think we should put our work out there for public examination until you have some good objective reason to believe it is on par with the better books being published in its genre. Having an agent who believed in me was an important piece of evidence that the book was good. So were the responses of a range of readers, from my online critique partners to all the kids I gave the book to. There was only one child of the twenty or so I tried who really couldn't summon the interest to get through it.

So I resolved to self-publish, and I decided to do it as professionally as possible. My goal was to create a fine enough product and achieve enough sales that either Lost in Lexicon itself or the next book in the series would be picked up by a trade publisher. I knew it would take a considerable investment of time and money, but I was lucky enough to have an adequate amount of both.

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