Friday, August 31, 2007

How I got here, Part 3: Pounding the Pavement

I have a disease.

Mom, pick yourself up off the floor. It's not THAT kind of disease, those nasty types that kill you. This is more of a mental disease, and I don't care what you may hear, all authors have it. It's called the Imneversatisfiedandwanttobemoresuccessful Disease. This has nothing to do with pride or selfishness. It has nothing to do with money. It has everything in the world to do with human nature, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you keep it under control and use it for good.

Shortly after my first book came out, I attended a small event where an author named Anita Stansfield spoke. She said something about how she's sold almost a million copies of her books. Instead of thinking, "Wow, great for her!", I looked down at the copy of my own book, nestled sadly in my hands, and wanted to cry. At that time, I'm positive I had probably sold just a few hundred books. Maybe.

Anyway, she then told us how she had become successful, and she used these exact words: "I went out there and I pounded the pavement." I remember distinctly, because it became my motto for the next year or two of my life.

It can't be put any more simply. I pounded the pavement. In the first 2 years, I know for a certainty I did at least 100 to 150 book signings and 30 to 50 school visits. (Ah, man, I'll have to save the joyous adventures of book signings for its own post. If I forget, someone remind me later.) I constantly went to bookstores and spoke with the employees, trying to turn on the charm in hopes that maybe, just maybe, one of them would someday recommend my book.

I pounded the pavement, paid my dues.

Dozens of sales turned into hundreds of sales. Hundreds turned into thousands. Having gotten the ball rolling, another beautiful, beautiful thing entered the story. Word of Mouth. People actually liked the book enough to tell others about it. I still can't get over the coolness of this concept. People, at no obligation, are taking the time to encourage others to buy MY book. That's like Christmas and Easter wrapped all into one.

I know I've shot my timeline all to pieces, but it's hard to break it out into individual events. The second book, A GIFT OF ICE, came out in the spring of 2004. Then THE TOWER OF AIR came out just a few months later, Cedar Fort wanting to roll the momentum wagon while they could. (I'd already written the second book by the time the first one came out, so that's why they were able to release books 2 and 3 in the same year.)

Slowly but surely, with the help of Cedar Fort setting up countless events, my pounding of the pavement, and some very nice dashes of word-of-mouth, Jimmy Fincher became a success for my publisher. Now remember, success is relative, but a fiction book that sells several thousand copies in a very small market is a success.

But then came the real kicker, the decision that surely was the final piece to the puzzle that would ensure I had a real future as an author. It's a day and a phone call I will never, never forget. Probably the only phone call comparable to it was when a real-life NY agent called me last year and said she wanted to represent me. (Well, um, except for every time my wife calls me, every moment of which is like drinking warmed milk with honey while listening to angels sing on high.)

It was Georgia Carpenter from Cedar Fort. She said that the whole company was very enthusiastic about the success of Jimmy Fincher, and that they wanted to give it an extra push. I can sum up the phone call with two words, both of which still make me smile to this day.

Re-release and artwork.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Question and Answer

Just a quick note: At least once or twice a week, I would also like to take a question from you guys and answer it to the best of my ability (don't worry, I'll seek help if I need to!). If you have one, please just include it in the comments for any posting and I'll keep track of them. I refuse to answer any questions regarding rumors that I am actually Brad Pitt. (I get that all the time. Well, that or Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp--ya know, it gets really old.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How I got here, Part 2: My First Book

You're going to see some contradictions in this post. Remember the old saying, used by many a mischievous parent through the years, "Do as I say, not as I do"? I swear my dad used to tell me to quit picking my nose just as his finger got lost in the vast darkness of his enormous left nostril. (Mom, calm down, I'm just kidding.)

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)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How I got here, Part 1: The Birth of Jimmy Fincher

My story began on November 26th, 1972 in a small town west of Atlanta called Austell. There, on a frigid night, the humid air biting like razor-tipped icicles....

Wait. Maybe that's starting too far back along the old Dashner Dude timeline. After all, I couldn't even speak or utilize the toilet facilities back then, let alone write stories. Let's jump ahead about twenty-five years.

Toward the end of my college days at BYU, where for some inexplicable reason I studied accounting, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to write stories. I'd always loved to read, obsessively, and had dabbled in writing here and there. But in 1998, the bug bit me like a constipated hornet on crack. I started writing with a fever, and after a few gosh-diddly-awful short stories popped out, I stumbled upon the tale of a kid named Jimmy Fincher.

At first, the story was a horrible attempt at Mark Twain meets R.L. Stine, with this dorky southern kid running around the woods with no clue that an evil door lay nearby, under which was something that would change the world forever. Problem: I didn't know what lay under the door, and I kept stalling with more and more of the ridiculous (not in a good way) antics of poor Jimmy Fincher.

I finally gave up and sat down to write a simple outline. This turned into a five book map (later it would be sheared down to four), and I could finally write a somewhat coherent story. I did just that, though it took me a couple of years because it was a very on-and-off-again sort of thing. And let me be the first to admit this to the world: it wasn't very well written. It was, after all, my very first book, and I still had a lot to learn. But I loved the story. I loved it with a passion, and I wanted others to read it.

It was the summer of 2001. I had never been to a writing conference or seminar. I had never met another author (unless you count my accounting professors, who wrote mind-numbing discourses on the world-changing potential of Balance Sheet ratios and got published in academic periodicals which were probably used as toilet paper more often than reading material). I was, simply put, an idiot when it came to the world of publishing.

I sent absolutely horrendous query letters to the very biggest publishers and agents I found on a list somewhere, then waited patiently while they, one by one, sent back little cards that had the words "Dear Author", "regrettably", "unfortunately" and other such niceties. I was shocked and mortified.

Okay, not really. I was smart enough to realize my chances of getting published were about as good as the Falcons winning the Super Bowl.

Once my options ran out, I was one hair short of being done with my illustrious author career. But then I did one last thing on a whim. I sent it to three small publishers: Deseret Book, Covenant and Cedar Fort. All three of them were almost exclusively religion-oriented publishers (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a.k.a. LDS Church a.k.a. Mormons a.k.a. Stephenie Meyer's Church). The first two sent me back nice letters saying thanks, like your story, but it's, uh, a fantasy kid's book, take a hike, psyche.

Then I opened the one from Cedar Fort, and the very first, tiny little spark of a writing future ignited in my heart when I read the letter. Lee Nelson, their acquisitions editor, said he'd taken the manuscript home to his eleven-year-old son, who proceeded to read it in one sitting and loved it. I spoke with Chad Daybell, their Managing Editor, on the phone, and he expressed interest as well. I was elated, ecstatic, bombasticallydiscombombulatedly slap-happy cheeky thrilled.

But then it all crashed and burned when I heard The Catch. The inevitable, evil, blood-thirsty Catch that always creeps into our hopes and dreams, laying waste to everything in its path.

If they were to publish it, they wanted me to help pay for some things.

Now, although this ended up not being as horrible as it sounds, I want it to sound horrible enough that you have a sick tummy until my next post, where the story will continue.

(The picture above is an illustration by Michael Phipps from my fourth book, WAR OF THE BLACK CURTAIN.)

And so it begins

Hi there. Technically, I've had a blog for a couple of years, but I only really used it to make announcements on my website, Due to extreme popular demand (well, my friend told me to do it), I'm going to start a new, separate blog that tells of my adventures in the next few months as I await the release of my new book, THE JOURNAL OF CURIOUS LETTERS.

I've had other books published, but not on the same scale as this new series. I'm with a much bigger publisher and will be the recipient of a much bigger marketing budget (all of which I will tell you about in the coming blogposts). In fact, this book will have a first print run in hardback that exceeds the total combined sales of my other 4 books (trade paperback). So yeah, I'm a half excited, bumbling goofball and half nervous, nail-biting wreck.

I hereby declare and promise that I will post often and respond to comments. I received many complaints about my poor job of updating the announcements blog, but I had a reason. Nothing's worse than making a big announcement only to have it disappear under new and less-exciting posts. So I will keep that blog only for news. This is the one where I will really try to tell the story of what's going to happen to the Little Author That Could. I'll also answer questions and babble about random topics.

I don't know how people will find out about this, but we shall see. Tell your friends and neighbors. If you don't have any friends or neighbors, then you need to begin brushing your teeth and move out of that wee little hut in the desert.

In my first few posts, I will tell the basic story of how I got to this point, so that everyone can catch up. Then we'll journey the long road together. Where it leads, nobody knows.

But we're going to have a fun time getting there.