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American Idol for Book Lovers?

By Flickr’s Steve Schnabel

Our guest today is Deborah Batterman [1], author of Shoes Hair Nails [2] (short stories) and Because my name is mother [3] (essays). She is a Pushcart nominee and took 3rd place in the Women’s National Book Association 2012 Short Fiction Contest. Her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, including Akashic Books  Terrible TwosdaysEvery Mother Has a Story, Vol. 2 [4] (Shebooks/Good Housekeeping), Open to InterpretationFading Light (Taylor & O’Neill), and Mom Egg Review, Vol. 14. Her Kindle Scout novel, Just like February, is a coming-of-age story framed by the passions of the 60s and the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

The road from completed manuscript to publication is more often than not a long and winding one.  If ever there was a leap of faith that got me thinking outside the box, it was this foray into reader-powered publishing. I may not have gotten the desired result, but unlike those rejections which writers are no stranger to, this one comes with an affirmation of readership: in a word, if I build it, they will come.

Connect with Deborah on Facebook [5] and Twitter [6].

American Idol for Book Lovers?

Writers are nothing if not gamblers. Hours and hours of hard work, draft after endless draft, characters who live inside our heads until, one day, we say, “Out!” in the hope that someone, maybe lots of people, will take a chance on what we’re offering.

Self-publishing, especially via print on demand and digital books, certainly has opened a world of possibility (not to mention gratification of a more immediate kind) for writers tired of and/or impatient with traditional channels. At the same time, there’s every good reason that legacy publishers, large and small, maintain a certain allure, even if a publishing market in flux has forced them to take adaptive strategies for survival. Then there’s that hybrid mode, otherwise known as vetted self-publishing. And now reader-powered publishing.

Do I dare? I asked myself when I first got wind of Kindle Scout. It had all the feel of a kickstarter campaign—i.e., drum up support for a book before it’s published—with more than one big advantage: you’re not asking for funding and you have the power of Amazon behind you from the get-go. I weighed the pros: my book featured on Amazon for 30 days; a chance to ‘unbox’ myself from the routine of submitting queries and excerpts/waiting for responses from agents/editors, get a direct sense of reader interest. The cons? Even if there was no escaping the “American Idol” for Book Lovers sense of it all, could I bank on literary merit in a contest more designed to rack up votes for genre fiction?

Get Out of your Comfort Zone

More to the point, I reasoned, getting out of one’s comfort zone is always a good thing for a writer. Day-to-day tenacity may be what we rely on to get the job done, but fresh insights so often happen when we step away from routine. Case in point: I thought I had really nailed my pitch. Until Kindle Scout asked me to put those telling details into a 45-character one liner and a synopsis/description of 500 characters or less. No room for even a wasted syllable here, it’s an exercise that forces your hand, demands getting a real handle on what you think your book is ‘about’.  Isn’t that question we all hate being asked? If you’re anything like me, you start with an idea/an image/a sentence that pops into your head. You have a sense of characters who, at their best, take on a life of their own. You think about the underlying themes, the story you thought you were telling that took a 45-degree turn somewhere along the way. Now you’re being asked to reduce it all to pithy details, catchy phrases. Can’t help but call up a phrase from a Cold Play song: Nobody said it was easy/ No one ever said it would be so hard.

ShoesCoverlatest smallThen there’s the simple reality of deciding what efforts at getting published/getting attention really are worth your time. Again, what separates Kindle Scout from other kickstarter, reader-powered paradigms is that you don’t need to raise any money to get your book published. If you’re one of the chosen, you get a decent contract/royalty arrangement for e-books. But you will work as hard at getting out the vote. I did my best to time posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Group emails only get you so far; follow-up, individualized, is more necessary than you’d like to imagine. Then there are direct messages to friends on Facebook—please vote/share/help me spread the word. Indeed, it takes a village.

In it to Win It

In the end I did not get a contract, even with a novel that would find itself in the hot and trending zone (#1 spot more than once) for the bulk of the 30 days in which an excerpt was posted, and there are several questions I ask myself: knowing there is interest in my book, would I consider self-publishing and/or an independent kickstarter campaign? Or do I simply make note of that interest when I pitch the novel? Maybe the overriding question is: what kind of books really do well in the reader-powered publishing paradigm? And even if the winner is, almost always, on the commercial end of the literary/commercial divide [7], don’t chance and timing always play their part in the breakout book, the one that defies conventional wisdom?

Gotta be in it to win it, my husband likes to say when I’m having one of those what-am-I-doing-with-my-life moments. Short of winning there’s every good reason to consider the Kindle Scout experience a testing ground for reader interest. In fact, once you find another outlet for publishing your book and make it available on Amazon, Kindle Scout will send an email to everyone who nominated it during the campaign. Not a bad way to jump start a newly published book.

Whether or not the risk you’ve taken pays off in the way you had hoped, there’s always something to be learned. At the very least, you know you’re in this for the long haul. No sooner did a writer/friend get wind of my disappointment than she sent me an email with links to publishers she thought might be receptive to my novel. “Get back on the horse,” she said. To which I responded, “Yes, but can I give myself 24 hours to sulk?”

What’s your American Idol? What leaps of faith have you taken and how have they paid off?