Monday, December 26, 2011

Dispatch From The New Publishing Frontier

In case you don’t have this oldie in your iTunes library, you might want to download Donald Fagan’s, New Frontier. It’s a catchy one, and for some reason, it’s been playing in my head of late.
So, how did I end up out here—an indie author on The New Frontier of Publishing? Well, there’s more to it than just a considerable stack of e-jections from literary agents. 
When I was in the throws of finishing Delta Legend, I mentioned to my friend Carolyn that I wanted to do a reading with a high school class—especially one with a diverse student body in terms of cultural background and ethnicity. 

Now, Carolyn is not the kind of person you casually mention something to and nothing happens. She’s the ultimate networker, forever hooking people up with each other. She also happened to be working at the perfect place at that time. A doctor of psychology, she was a counselor at a high school and she had not one, but two classes in mind for me.
Jane Hall is the teacher of these particular classes, and after reading the first few chapters herself, she enthusiastically embraced the idea of having me come do a reading with the students. Carolyn also invited a few students from outside the classes whom she knew were interested in writing. 

Since I have a background as a playwright, I decided I wanted these readings to be more like a table read, with the students taking the character parts while I read the narrative. Considering I was also an actress once upon a time, you'd think performing in a reading situation, where the words are my own and right there in front of me, would be a snap. But let me tell you, I was really nervous when that second bell rang and the students started filing in, staring at the middle-aged white woman who was there to read them a little story. "Why the hell did I say I wanted to do this again?"  
I did my best to keep the pages I’d printed out from visibly shaking as I launched into the first chapter, and I’m sure I was reading way too fast. Thank god there were students who’d agreed (albeit somewhat reluctantly) to read Calvin and Rashawn. There was simply no way I was going to be able to pull that one off—even it was a class of all white kids. 
Thankfully, in a matter of paragraphs, something truly amazing happened. I felt them engage. The guy sitting to my right, who initially had his head down on the desk in an “I’m not here so don’t even bother” position, turned his head toward me and was listening intently. And he wasn’t the only one. 

By end of the first chapter, they were in it. I breathed a huge internal sigh of relief and we continued on through the next five chapters with students reading the various character parts. It was so cool to hear the characters being brought to life for the first time outside of my own head. By the end of both class readings, the students were wanting more and asking when they could get the book—oh, and trying every which way to get me to divulge what the creature was, which I steadfastly refused, of course. But I definitely got a high off those first two readings. Not only did the students like it, they genuinely wanted more.
A few months later, when the manuscript was finished and I’d begun the daunting process of querying agents, I went back to do another reading with the students, this time with just the older class of juniors and seniors. It was now the following school year, so some of the original class had graduated and there were a few new faces. Those who'd been in the first reading happily filled the new students in and we picked up where we'd left off. Once again, the book was enthusiastically received—another validation that the story was working, engaging even reluctant readers.
So, to come home after something like that and have more rejections waiting in my inbox was confounding to say the lease. And it was a turning point for me. I began to seriously question who really had their finger on the pulse of what’s marketable in today's Young Adult arena and who was simply entrenched. This is when I began to seriously consider going indie and e-Publishing Delta Legend.
Everything in the today’s world is fast-paced and on-demand. The traditional literary world of agents and publishing houses is painfully slow by comparison -- an antiquated, old-school machine grinding though the motions. The hours spent querying the gatekeepers then waiting days and weeks to see if they request to see more seems unrealistic by today's standard business practices. If you’re lucky enough that someone actually does request more pages, you could be waiting weeks to months before they get back to you and possibly offer the brass ring—though in all likelihood, will tell you they’re passing.
I will say, that within my querying process, there were a few agents who were really on it. They responded right away, either quickly sending a form rejection, or if they did ask to see more, got back to me within a reasonable amount of time. But these folks were the exception, not the rule.
But back to the old-school machine. What if an agent does offer that coveted brass ring of representation and gets you a subsequent publishing deal -- how long until you’re actually in print and on the shelves? Too long, in my opinion, at least for this work. The students who represented my primary target audience were fired up and asking when they could have the book. It suddenly seemed ridiculous for me to be telling them, “Maybe in a year or so—if I can get an agent and a publishing deal.” They didn’t give a crap about any of that nonsense, they wanted to read the book now. 
There are authors and agents who’ll say you’ve got to get up into the hundreds of rejections before you should even entertain the notion of going the indie route. But after a considerable amount of research, truthfully, I felt like I’d queried all the agents who were right for this material once I’d hit thirty-five or so. Still, I did more research and pushed on to fifty queries. I wanted to make sure I’d given the traditional route a good shot. Anything beyond that, however, felt like I'd just be sniffing around for anyone who’d give me the time of day, and the wrong agent is far worse than no agent at all.
But here’s the rub: In finally taking the leap and going indie, it doesn’t feel at all like I’m taking a lesser route—the way it might have a few years ago. Actually, it feels more like I’ve taken up the reins of my own literary career and am driving this thing myself (with the help of my partner Tom). Fortunately for me, there have been many who’ve blazed into this new frontier ahead of me, and I’m able to follow the trails they’ve forged, reading their sign posts (and blog posts). 
So, to synopsize the reasons I decided e-publishing Delta Legend was right for me:
In spite of a well-honed query letter and a solid manuscript, it was raining rejections.
The unbridled enthusiasm the novel was receiving from betas of its primary target audience, as well as, the crossover crowd.
The ever-increasing number of people I was seeing everywhere with e-Readers, also the fact that the price of these devices was steadily becoming more reasonable.
But more than anything, it was my gut feeling that Delta Legend’s time was now, not a year or more from now, but NOW.
I have a friend, Lonnie, who’s a contractor. One of his many famous lines is, “Just commit”—his contractor’s version of “Just do it.” One of the more memorable times he urged me to “just commit” I was holding a sledge hammer and anxiously questioning my decision to knock out a small wall between two closets to make an entertainment center. But let me tell you, once I swung that hammer and started knocking that thing to bits, there was no going back. It felt right, and even though it was work, it was all worth it in the end.
So, in the spirit of “Just commit,” shortly before we hit the upload button at, I sent out emails to the last fifteen agents on my query list that I’d not yet heard back from, or hadn’t simply closed out as non-responders. Here’s what it said:
Dear (insert name),
“If you haven't already done so, please disregard my query for Delta Legend, as I have found representation elsewhere.” 
Thank you, 
(insert name -- oh, that would be me in this case)
I left off the fact that the representation I have found is my own. That would simply be opening a can of worms with people who are already grappling with the power shift this new publishing frontier has created. Had I said I was going to e-Publish Delta Legend myself, I’m convinced a few would have fired back an email saying they were just about to ask for a “full” or lecturing me that I was making a career-ending mistake. Frankly, I just didn’t need it—my mind was made up—I’d committed. And by officially excusing myself from the traditional route, hopefully I opened up a space for another writer who’ll thrive there. 
Me, I’m taking my chances as an indie author. To quote Donald Fagen, I think I’ve “got the right dynamics for the New Frontier.”

And it's WAY easier than this.