Over the course of writing three novels, I have found it surprising how many readers are as interested in how the story came to be written as they are with the story itself. Due to the timeliness of its plot, this has been especially true with my latest novel, Island No. 6.
Because the central conflict of the plot is a battle to prevent the spread of a highly-contagious virus, many readers assume I had “ripped the story from the headlines” and rushed it to publication. This notion could not be further from the truth, as I actually typed the first sentence of the novel in 2011 – nearly nine years before the current Covid-19 pandemic – and finished it in 2018. So, why the two-year delay?
Humor me as I begin at the beginning. After the publication of my first novel, So Shelly, I was struggling to deliver to Random House a second novel. Somewhere, I picked up the advice to write the kind of story I like to read. Therefore, having long been a sucker for a good pandemic story (Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain is one of my all-time favorites.), I decided to take a stab at writing one of my own. However, after several fits, starts, and tens of thousands of words, I was not happy with my efforts and abandoned the project. Several years passed, I published a second novel, Goodness Falls, returned to my pandemic novel, and completed a massive rewrite with which I was very happy – honestly believing it to be the best writing I had ever done.
In the meantime, my original literary agent left the business. Like a recent widower, I was forced to get back out there and start the wooing/pitching process all over. I found what I thought to be the perfect rebound match, a veritable Prince Charming, the agent-of-my-dreams. I loved everything about him. It was as if the gods of publishing had fashioned him just for me. He flattered my writing and seemed to show sincere interest in me and Island No. 6. Desperate for representation, I concluded he was the only agent for me, and I devoted myself to winning his affection. I had fallen in love.
Sadly, he had not.
In his defense, I should say that this agent had continually warned me that we were not exclusive. He even encouraged me to continue to seek alternative representation. He had not “put a ring on it.” But I was deaf to his admonitions and determined to make our relationship work.
After exchanging a year of flirtatious emails, turning away serious interest from another agent, and committing entirely to this man, the agent jilted me at the metaphorical altar.
I was devastated. I swore I’d never write again.
Then Covid-19 hit, and I had this super-relevant novel gathering dust on my laptop. Against my better judgement, my heart light began to glow once more. But the traditional route to publication is a one-to-two year process. I was afraid that by the time Island No. 6 was made available to the public, interest in pandemic stories would have waned. I decided I didn’t need a man (er . . . agent) and to make an end run around traditional publishers.
Therefore, I submitted the novel to what is known as a hybrid publisher. In doing so, I surrendered 1) any possibility of an advance, 2) an exhaustive content and copy edit (which I still feel it needed), 3) the aid of a publicist, 4) shelving in the few brick-and-mortar bookstore chains remaining, and 5) the national reach and prestige of a Big-5 publisher.
Conversely, what I gained was 1) total rights to my novel, 2) official registration of the book, 3) an expeditious journey to market, 4) titling control and nearly complete artistic freedom, and 5) a higher share of royalties on sales.
In the final analysis, I believe it was a worthwhile trade-off. There is little-to-no-chance of Island No. 6 being a national bestseller (Recommendations to fellow readers and Amazon reviews wouldn’t hurt.), but there was not much chance of that happening with a traditional publisher anyway. Barely two percent of books sell more than 5,000 copies, which is the number that must be sold in a week to earn “bestseller” status. Locally, sales have far exceeded my expectations, and I regularly receive positive reviews from readers. I can more than live with that.
Most importantly, I picked up the pieces of my writer’s broken heart and put myself and my work out there once more. Who knows? Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Right Agent is still out there. If so, I’m willing to put the bad romance behind me and to learn to love again.
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