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She got a publishing contract and a $50,000 advance for her debut YA self-published novel.
The novel for which author Rysa Walker has just received that advance started life as the self-published Time’s Twisted Arrow.
And it’s her first.
As long as you’re sitting there weeping, I’ll just mention Walker’s four co-finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Why let those Kleenexes go to waste?
Ken Moraff in Ithaca, New York, whose winning book is It Happened in Wisconsin, is the general fiction category winner, about a Depression-era baseball team and the dynamics of its players relationships.
Jo Chumas, a journalist in Barcelona. Her book, The Hidden, is the winner in the mystery and thriller category. Set in the Egyptian Sinai in the 1940s, it combines “brutal murder,” revolution and old diary writings.Chumas book will be published in October on the Thomas & Mercer imprint.
(Book PR copy always says “brutally murdered.” No one is ever just murdered. They’re “brutally murdered.” Never “gently murdered,” “softly murdered,” “mildly murdered,” “thoughtfully murdered.” That’s because murder by any means is brutal. Just “murdered” is all you need. The “brutality” is hype.)
Evelyn Pryce, whose winning book, A Man Beyond Reproach, is also a debut effort. This one is the romance-category winner, set in 1830s London and a bordello that seems to cater to noblemen who might become Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women. this one will be out in October on the Montlake Romance imprint.
J. Lincoln Fenn “began her career in horror,” her bio says. This is true of so many of us, isn’t it?
No, seriously, her book, Poe—winner in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror category of the competition—is set on Halloween and features a Rasputin zombie-novelist who writes obits for a living. I hope it quotes a raven, too. With a title like Poe, this one simply has to come out on the 47North imprint.
I’d be interested in hearing of other publishers in the industry! the industry! that have cultivated new fiction so richly and in such a readership-involving way as Amazon Publishing’s global voting stage that asks readers, themselves, to gauge the material.
And once you’ve pulled yourself together, we’re going to spend some time here with the grand-prize winner, Rysa Walker, whose experience and approach reflect the way Amazon’s program is not only producing work but also nurturing it.
For her part, Walker—that first name is pronounced “RYE-sa”—tells me in a phone interview from her home in Cary, North Carolina, “I’ve actually made a lot of friends in the indie community. I spent the last year trying to market what was then Time’s Twisted Arrow,” her winning manuscript which she’d published, herself.
I’ve lost my breakthrough notes for my MG novel. I would scream, but why alarm the pets?
— Sarah Herlong (@HerlongSarah) June 20, 2013
Self-publication wasn’t a requirement of the competition, nor was it a problem. The rules of the Breakthrough Novel Award program prohibit entering material that has been under a publishing contract currently or previously. But as long as the rights have never left the author, an entry is valid. The entry period is normally in mid- to late-January. Up to 10,000 people can make one entry each. The competition, and the voting on the winners, is international and goes through several stages of selection and elimination. Walker remembers her self-published effort not quite languishing but not taking off, either. “I got a lot of good reviews. I won’t even tell you it was selling okay. It was tolerable, a few sales a week. For an indie author, that being my first book, and knowing it was part of a series, that was hopeful.”
Working on my alt lit breakthrough novel
— Dr. Crop (@Dr_Cop) June 17, 2013
Now, of course, what will publish as Timebound in October looks much more than merely hopeful. And it’s the first in a three-volume series, Walker says.
I never thought I’d get past the point of the free Publishers Weekly review [at the semi-finalist stage]. That was really my goal. I was hoping not to have to pay for an indie review.
Walker makes a point familiar to many self-publishing authors: despite the fact that authors must pay their way into both Kirkus’ and Publishers Weekly’s programs for self-published writers, the resulting reviews will label the work as independent.
I was reviewed at Kirkus, and it was a very positive review. But I had to pay for it and it was still “Kirkus Indie.” Some people look at that, and they dismiss it, even though you can pay that money and get a bad review. I know plenty of people who have done that. But people still see this as a “paid review” and therefore not valid.
The stigma [about self-publishing] is not gone yet. I read an article yesterday that ripped into indies, saying that 95 percent of what’s out there is bad and it’s degrading the publishing industry because people don’t know where to find a good book. And there is some truth to that, but I’ve read some pretty bad traditionally published books, too. Maybe not as many grammatical errors, but there are other issues, too.
In an interesting parallel, British author Polly Courtney’s new Q&A at the Guardian, ‘Now I’m back to self-publishing, I’ve regained control’, has some pointed comments about her experience in working on a contract with HarperCollins.
Her new, self-published book, Feral Youth—involving the 2011 London riots—is scheduled for an August 1 availability in the States.
When I signed with HarperCollins, I thought “Great! This is the golden ticket I’ve been waiting for!” I thought it would be a great collaboration between me and the publisher, given my success self-publishing my first two novels. The reality was a big disappointment. The publisher seemed intent on pushing my books into pre-existing moulds (“misery lit”, “chick lit”) that didn’t reflect the contents.
“Brand Polly Courtney” was increasingly muddled, leading to confusion for readers. It turned out that my editor hadn’t actually read my first two books. There was no marketing budget, which meant that it was up to me to promote each book. This wasn’t a problem per se, but my job was made hard by the frivolous book covers and titles assigned to them. I actually felt ashamed of the product. Now I’m back to self-publishing, I’ve regained control.
Had a great time last night at Amazon Breakthrough Novel awards dinner yucking it up with G.M. Ford, Vince Keenan… http://t.co/C5v2tZ5BKx
— Michael Sherer (@MysteryNovelist) June 16, 2013
If anything, Walker seems to be just as happily making the trip the other direction, from self-published writer to an Amazon Publishing (traditional) author. She’s impressed at the agility of the company, she says. By the time the Breakthrough competition’s five finalists were chosen, “they were in high gear,” she says, creating cover art, putting her book through its first developmental edit (which she liked), so that the quintet of winners will all publish in a smart time-frame, on October 22, “while the buzz is still there.” And it’s a moment of new buzz for Amazon Publishing, as well.
As covered by Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield at Forbes, the company has found a million-copy seller in the German author Oliver Pötzsch, translating the Hangman’s Daughter series on the AmazonCrossing imprint. In Amazon Publishing Has First Million-Copy Hit; Will Authors, Agents Take Notice? Greenfield writes:
His Hangman’s Daughter series has sold over a million copies of three titles between print, ebook and audio-book sales…“One big question is how much of the sale came from Harcourt’s print edition?” said Mike Shatzkin, a publishing industry consultant and conference programmer for Digital Book World. “When there’s an Amazon-Harcourt partnership, the resistance should be much less.”
The Harcourt arrangement with Amazon places Amazon Publishing print editions in cooperating bookstores. Greenfield quotes Forrester’s James McQuivey, himself an Amazon Publishing author of Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation:
I don’t think Barnes & Noble will be moved but indie bookstores might look to this and say, “We want to have the books that people want to read. You might want to take a moral stand but you might also want to sell books. So you could try putting some Amazon books in there and if they don’t sell, maybe you do a little victory dance and if they do sell, well, that’s money.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of victory dancing for the grand prize winner of Amazon Publishing’s Breakthrough Novel competition.
When we were judging the 50 Shades marketing campaign last week, they had reader testimonials.
— Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) June 20, 2013
My favourite was: ‘Can’t wait to read the next book. The old man’s away all week.’
— Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) June 20, 2013
One of my goals in writing this series of YA books has been to get younger readers interested in real history.
A longtime educator in history and government, Walker’s real name is Dr. Cheryl Walniuk. She teaches through the University of Maryland’s University College online program. Her CHRONOS Files site, the online home for her three-part series of books, includes information for educators in which she explains her interest in writing historical fiction. Somewhat like Courtney’s writings, Walker’s YA material is backed by an interest in youth culture. To her fellow teachers, she writes:
My own love of history began with the stacks of historical novels that I always found lying in dusty corners at my grandmother’s house. By the time I was in graduate school, I realized that much of the “history” I’d gotten from those books was rather suspect, but I’m not sure if I would have ever become a professor of history and government if those books hadn’t gotten me interested enough that I wanted to dig deeper and learn more.
Walniuk’s blog section at CHRONOS Files includes a call for student submissions, with full instructions here. If you know a young person who might enjoy learning how to study history through through the eyes of a supposed time-traveling observer, check it out and see if it’s something you’d like to guide them toward.
Just had a haircut from Zen stylist. She – what you you been up today? Me:(mumbling incoherently.) She: Aah, you’ve been finding yourself.
— Asta (@GapingWomen) June 18, 2013
Walniuk/Walker is hoping that her fictional formulation of a so-called CHRONOS time-traveling designer gene (Chrono-Historical Research Organization and Natural Observation Society) will inspire young people to start “using primary sources in a creative writing assignment.” She’s hoping to promote students’ own writings in alignment with the Library of Congress’ Common Core initiative.
— Michael Crossan (@MichaelCrossann) June 17, 2013
In teaching at the university level, Walniuk says, “we get so many students who haven’t a clue what a primary source is, let alone how you might find it, how you might use it.” Her own work as Rysa Walker is a way of modeling the right approach. And if you’ve assumed that Amazon’s big prize has gone to some time-tunneling ditty about happy moments in the Belle Époque, think again.
— Don Linn (@DonLinn) June 19, 2013
Timebound’s historical destination is a well-documented Sweeney Todd-like tale. Another book, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, is a 2004 narrative nonfiction treatment from Vintage of the same material, optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio for a possible film treatment.
H.H. Holmes, sometimes described as the first modern US serial killer, used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as the rationale for what Walker describes as a “women’s hotel.” She tells me:
Nobody really knows how many people he killed. He didn’t even know because he had a lime pit in the basement of his hotel, he’d slide the bodies down there. And so many women were coming in to Chicago for the World’s Fair, either as visitors or, in a lot of cases, for work. He set it up [his “castle,” as it’s described in some accounts] as a hotel catering to women. And a lot of women disappeared.
Paralleling her experience of the stigma attached to self-published work, Walker says that her earlier writings carry their own kind of impediment.
“I have written some academic work, but I found out that was more of a deficit.” To mention academic writing, she says, makes people think “four-thousand footnotes and probably not a very good plot.”
Nevertheless, Walker’s original preparation in Time’s Twisted Arrow, the self-published predecessor to Timebound, she concedes, wasn’t what she’d like it to have been.
It had a number of beta readers. I did not use a professional editor because, to be honest, I couldn’t find one I could afford. I’ve done some editing on my own. And although you should never, ever edit your own work, I did. And there are a few typos in the Time’s Twisted Arrow version to prove it, because your eye just ends to gloss over the error.
But I also had beta readers including two young-adult authors. And a couple of friends whose opinions I really respected. One of them told me, “This is good. If you’re not getting any feedback from agents, just get it out there.”
Walker says she likes the idea of the “professional betas” discussed in Tuesday’s Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives, “if they’ll actually catch continuity errors” and other such editorial details, as well as being pre-publication audience-reaction predictors.
One of Walker’s children, a son, was a primary reader for her.
He zips through YA novels like potato chips. And he was able to spot a lot of things for me. It helped when they were sending me covers. One had curlicue fonts. All the boys in the family were like, “No, I would not pick up that book because somebody might see me looking at it.”….Having that input from the group you’re targeting is invaluable.
Once her book had gone into competition for the Breakthrough Award and was ready for customer votes in the final stage of the contest, the facts that she’d been in touch with groups of young readers and that she had her book self-published, she says, were advantages.
That last stage is a matter of whether you can get out the vote. There were several hundred readers out there, maybe more than that, who had read the book, liked the book [as Time’s Twisted Arrow]. I was able to contact them and say, “Spread the word.”
Screech of an incoming fax. Just another typical day here in 1991.
— Carolyn Kellogg (@paperhaus) June 17, 2013
About three weeks ago, she took down the original Time’s Twisted Arrow to be sure that readers don’t mistake Timebound in October for the second book in the series.
On the wider scale, and in answer to the question in Greenfield’s headline, of course authors and agents will certainly notice not only the million-selling coup of Oliver Pötzsch’s series but also the arrival of the Walker Timebound and four other handsomely awarded contracts moving to the market in October.
— Mathew Paust (@MattPaust) June 16, 2013
While its challenges are contemporary, Amazon Publishing may have had no more difficulty finding traction in the market in its first couple of years than many of the well-established houses initially experienced decades ago. The “breakthroughs” celebrated over the weekend may not lie only in those contracts for writers.
And however many in Old Publishing may still decry Amazon Publishing as an incursion, many entrepreneurial authors recognize it as a new-work-nourishing player indigenous to an unprecedented global marketplace.
On the personal level, Walker says that her big win ends up validating friends and family who have believed in her work as much as it does her own effort.
My sister who went to the award ceremony with me [last Saturday at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park] has had very high hopes for the book. She kept saying, “It’s really, really good.” And I kept saying, “But, Donna, wouldn’t you tell me that even if you didn’t think it was really good?” She said, “Yes, I would. But it’s really good.” And I said, “Okay, sorry, but you don’t have much credibility on that point.”
And now? She’s saying, “Yes I do have credibility on that point now. I’ve been validated by this award, too.”
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) June 19, 2013
Main image: iStockphoto – NickP37