Since Kathy Patrick asked us to share our publishing stories—how we got started, and all—I’m going to do just that. If you’ve heard it before, sorry! But I love telling it, because it reminds me of how lucky I am to be sitting here, published, and participating in this blog! And yes, it’s kinda long, but hey, this is 10 crazy years we’re talking about!
When I was in my forties, and my kids were heading off to college, I rediscovered a dream I’d all but forgotten, to be an author. It happened quite by accident. You see, I went back to school, too, for a Master’s in Education because I wanted to teach high school English. After a decade in real estate, I wanted security, benefits, and summers off. But a funny thing happened, in the English class we did a lot of writing, and I just LOVED IT! I hadn’t written in a decade, since leaving a freelance journalism career for real estate. But suddenly, sitting in that classroom, writing those creative pieces, something lit up inside me! I was an eleven year old girl again, pecking away at my Dad’s old Underwood manual typewriter as I wrote my first short stories. Dreaming of being an author!
I switched programs and got into a Master’s in English with a concentration in Writing and in my very first class, I created Joanna Harrison, a corporate wife in a short story who runs away to Pawleys Island. Two years later, in 1999, when I wrote my thesis, I wrote 120 pages about a corporate wife who runs away from her life in NJ to start over on Pawleys Island, SC (exactly where I’d still like to run away to!). The Richest Season was born.
After graduating, it took 2 more years for me to finish the novel, getting up at 5 am most mornings and writing before work, and also on weekends. By August of 2001, I had a 500 page manuscript, with not just Joanna, the wife’s journey, but the corporate husband, Paul’s, transforming story, as well as that of an elderly woman, Grace, who gives Joanna a job. I was so excited! This book had everything I love in it, the beauty of nature, the need to get back to the simple things in life. Rediscovering our dreams after getting caught up in the busyness of life! (And I didn’t even realize art was imitating life, it was simply subconscious!).
Well, there wasn’t a happy, tidy little ending to my story. It got rejected for the next 5 years, again and again, and I shelved it 3 times! Now there were some good moments—I got some glowing rejection letters, the best one arriving on October 11, 2001, exactly a month after 9/11. She loved the book, but the publishing world was in flux. I decided to wait a while before trying again. Later in 2002, I had a very big agent call me on the phone! From her vacation home! She wanted the manuscript exclusively, and I was jumping up and down. Two weeks later when she called again, I heard the BUT before she uttered the word… “but I wanted some humor.” I was ready to bang my head against a wall. I had no idea chick-lit was becoming a hot genre, and that’s what agents wanted. Then another agent read my manuscript and asked me to (and I swear these are her words) “ditch Paul and ditch Grace, I just want Joanna.” I realized she wanted a romance novel. I wasn’t willing to give up what I thought were 2 incredible characters.
In the meantime, I kept hearing the same refrain from friends and relatives who were reading the manuscript in a fat 3 ring binder: Your book is wonderful! Why isn’t it published?
A milestone birthday came and went. I began writing another book, while still working full time as a realtor, and I was frustrated as hell. I began to do some soul searching.
I wanted to keep writing. I didn’t want to give up. But what defined success to me as a writer? To be read! And to move people when they read my work. I wanted The Richest Season to be out there in reader land, for people to know about Joanna, Grace and Paul, three characters who I believed deserved to live in reader’s imaginations. I wanted them to fall in love with Pawleys Island, as I had more than 20 years ago.
And so I decided to take one of the biggest gambles in my life: to self-publish The Richest Season. After all, I reasoned, if I could sell houses, which I’d done very successfully for nearly 20 years by then, I could sell this book!!!
I found a small print on demand publisher in California which I’d never heard of, and I was hoping no one else had either. I wanted the book judged on its own merits, not with the stigma I knew it would carry if the truth were known.
My self-published edition of The Richest Season debuted in May, 2006. I immediately orchestrated a book launch at our local college. I sent press releases to our local weekly, and our local radio station. I hung posters all over town. But the week of the launch I was a wreck. I was now feeling like a bit of a fraud. The local paper interviewed me, took a picture, and ran an article with the headline: DREAM OF BEING PUBLISHED COMES TRUE. I thought I would die from embarrassment! Obviously, that wasn’t exactly accurate.
The night of the launch, I was scared to death. I knew most people would have no idea it was self-published. I had no idea how many would show up. Despite a torrential downpour and with little parking nearby, I managed to fill the parlors. One of the first women who came in, who’d gotten the book online—the only place it was available-- hugged me and said, “I loved your book. I wanted to live it.” I went on to sell over 100 books that night. Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled. But still…there was that nagging feeling, despite what they thought: I wasn’t the real deal. I wasn’t a real published author.
I began pounding the pavement. Getting a bookseller to read a self-published book isn’t easy. The big stores and chains simply won’t. So I focused on the independents. I went into each store with shaking knees and trembling hands, as I brought a copy of my book to one store after another.
Then something magical happened. One bookseller loved it, and then another. They began to help me, recommending the book to their book clubs, asking me to do signings. I got up the nerve to call booksellers in other states. Tom Warner at Litchfield Books in Pawleys Island (my setting), loved it and said “next time you come down, we’ll have you for a signing.” I told him, “I’m coming later this month!” (I wasn’t actually, but after he said that, I knew I had to). The next thing you know, I’m on a Southern book tour, with stops at Park Road Books in Charlotte, and McIntyre’s Fine Books near Chapel Hill! I sent press releases to all the nearby papers and got coverage, because I was that squeaky wheel, who called and emailed until they responded.
I even went to a bookseller’s convention and walked the floor, handing out review copies to some surprised booksellers, as the big name authors signed at booths, with long lines, a very humbling experience.
The next eight months were exhausting as I continued to market my novel in any way I could, while still working. I racked up 25 signings, some library and senior talks, and met with nearly 40 book clubs in 10 states, many via web cam. Reader feedback was unbelievable. I sold more then 2,000 books, what some literary books do in a lifetime, I learned. In one indie, The Richest Season went on to become their top selling trade paperback for 2006, outselling The Kite Runner.
Needless to say, I was exhausted. I had no time to write, and booksellers kept saying to me, “You have to stop selling books out of the trunk of your car (I was supplying many on consignment) and get back to writing. People are asking for your next book.”
One night in November, I decided to search for an agent again. I sent out e-mail queries loaded with all my bookseller and reader quotes, newspaper reviews, and the fact that I had several thousand readers waiting for my next book. The very next morning I got a call from The Victoria Sanders Agency, asking me for an exclusive. I agreed. Eight weeks later they called, asking me to come in.
On the last day of January in 2007, after a harrowing trip into New York that included snow, ice and a train shut-down because of a terrorist alert, I was rewarded with a smile and these words from Victoria: “This is a wonderful book!” Validation! Finally!
But we still had to sell it to a publisher. I knew I was only halfway there.
Victoria asked me to add a few scenes early in the book, something I’d already been thinking about because of all my book club discussions. In April of 2007, with those new scenes added, she sent copies of the manuscript to major publishers in New York on a Thursday. The following Monday morning she called me and said “I think we’re going to have multiple offers.” I literally jumped up and down.
Shortly afterward, she decided to hold an auction for the rights to The Richest Season. It was an exciting and nail biting time, waiting for her call. When it came, I was thrilled to learn that Hyperion Books won, offering me a 2 book hardcover deal. This was it! After years of rejection, I was the real deal!
And the astounding thing was this. All during my low moments, and there were many over this entire journey, my best friend kept singing the Disney song, “When you wish upon a star…” I then learned that Hyperion is owned by…Disney!
Within a few weeks, Random House in Germany bought German rights in a 5 way auction, and Mondadori took it in Italy in a preempt. It’s now being translated into Spanish.
In June, 2008, The Richest Season debuted in hardcover, as an INDIE NEXT PICK. The following summer, my second novel, So Happy Together, also an INDIE NEXT PICK, also debuted in hardcover. Both are now out as trade paperbacks.
I’ve just turned in my third novel, The Book Lover, about a struggling independent bookseller who discovers…a self-published author! I don’t think there’s anything out there quite like it! It’s truly fiction, though I do use a bit of my backstory, but it tells the entire journey of how a book begins in an author’s head and ends up in a reader’s hands. And it’s got lots of drama, and some great characters, you’ll just love.
As I begin the first tentative steps into my fourth novel, there are still days I can’t quite believe it’s true, that I’m a real author. And I'd nearly given up.
My advice to aspiring writers with a dream is work hard, persevere, and BELIEVE!
Maryann McFadden lives in NJ, although her heart is in the Lowcountry of SC. She was a freelance writer for ten years, then sold real estate, before returning to writing, her first love. You can read more at www.maryannmcfadden.com