Well, "Do as I say, not as I do" is the theme for this portion of my story.
Cedar Fort told me that since they had never really done anything like this, a national audience-targeted fantasy book, they wanted me to share some of the risk. That line alone should be enough to set off all kinds of alarms inside your head, and it did mine at the time. I may look like Mr. Bean on three hours rest, but I ain't stupid.
They wanted me to pay a portion of the costs for the book. Now, it wasn't a ton of money, but it wasn't chump change, either. And they made the promise that if the book sold decently in the first year, I would be refunded the money and get a contract to do the entire series (at no extra cost to me, of course).
Still, the alarms clanged, as they should have. Not in a million years should I have done it. Not in a million years should YOU do it. Anyone in my industry will tell you that such a thing is a sham, a thinly veiled Vanity Press, the lowest of the lows for any wannabe author.
But here's the thing.
I did it.
Foolishly, stupidly, otheradverbsthatdescribeidioticly, I went to their headquarters and wrote them a check and gave them a disk containing my manuscript. My agent, upon reviewing the contract three years later, said it will take her roughly a decade to forgive me for ever signing it.
But I will not bash on Cedar Fort. From that point on, I had an absolutely wonderful relationship with them, and they, as cliche as it sounds, changed my life forever. They did what they had to do, I did what I should not have done, and then together we proceeded to turn the Jimmy Fincher Saga into a pretty decent success (on a regional level, anyway).
The first book in the series, A DOOR IN THE WOODS, was released on June 1, 2003. It was an extremely low budget affair, with a cover that left much to be desired (and inspired most kids to move on and find a cooler looking book) and no inside illustrations.
(An aside: Click on the cover above and you can see the bigger version. To be honest, I can't objectively say how I feel about that first cover, because the re-release one is so cool. Anyway, we'll get to that. But one thing: Nicole Cunningham, who did the cover, did the best she could without artwork, and I think it turned out pretty well considering the circumstances. I love her to death.)
So the book came out with little to no fanfare. Cedar Fort had very limited marketing resources, but did a decent job of at least getting it in the systems of the major national chains, as well as Deseret Book and independent bookstores. (Interestingly enough, Seagull Book said no at first, then said yes a couple of months later. I still don't know why or how that happened.)
You always hear authors tell stories of what it was like when they first saw their book on the shelf in a real bookstore. For me, it was kind of cool, but immensely tainted by the little fact that I had helped PAY to get it there. It just didn't seem real to me. I felt like a bit of a fake. I could also tell that Cedar Fort had done what they could, but I wasn't going to see much marketing.
(An aside: when I received my copies in the mail, imagine my horror when I noticed that the italics in the whole book had somehow been changed into normal font. Emphasis was gone, my dream sequence didn't make sense anymore, etc. I was sick to my stomach. Luckily, it had come from a small test batch of 250 copies and was corrected. Maybe those will be worth something someday!)
Back to the story. In a word, everything seemed pretty hopeless. There existed no reason on Earth for people to buy my book. It slowly, and I mean slowly, trickled out a door here and there in those first few weeks and months; the sales were pathetic.I could've given up, and felt like doing so many times. I felt sick to my core over giving Cedar Fort money, only to see it poof away to oblivion (notice there's a lot of feeling sick thus far). But I have this very distinct memory of sitting in my office at work one day and picking up a copy of my own book, which I had taken there to show off weeks earlier. I almost sadly flipped it open and read the first few pages. Already, I had progressed in my writing enough to see that, yeah, it wasn't the best book ever in terms of pure literary skill. But the story kicked tail, and I knew kids would love it. If they'd just give it a chance.
Wonderful people at Cedar Fort were ready to help if I was willing to bust my chops. People like Georgia Carpenter and Vachelle Johnson and Angie Harris. They had plans, but they all entailed me getting out there and pounding the pavement.
And then it finally hit me.
That stupid book wasn't going to sell unless someone did something about it.
And do something about it, I did.
(to be continued)