Self-publishing: Go with a YA Novel?

The stigma attached to self-publishing has just about disappeared thanks to the digital revolution and the likes of Amanda Hocking. She started out in 2010 with book one of her Trylle Trilogy selling it for 99 cents. Within a year she had made $1 million on e-book sales and signed up with one of the Big Six traditional publishers for a $2 million deal, saying she wanted to reach out to more people than those reading the Kindle. "I want to become a household name", she declared, referring to all those people out there who read printed books.

Good for her, everyone is drooling over this fabulous story of rags to riches. But how did she do it?

Two things stand out.

First the product: she struck out with a YA paranormal trilogy (of course, she's got more out now - modern authors are famous serial writers). Yes, three books right away and all centered on youthful vampiric romance - ok, a little like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, but that's important. You want to have a winning model in mind when you start out. And Amanda Hocking's marketing strategy: she priced the books at 99 cents - a great promotional tool since it works on impulse buying. Who's going to hesitate when the layout is so small, less than a coffee? It is also reported that she relied heavily on Twitter and, as far as I can tell (I follow her on Twitter) she still does.

I, along with every other new writer, have little hope of duplicating such a stupendous performance. But surely something can be learned.

Let's set aside this question of price: it is only a promotional ploy and anyone can do it (I am! Check me out on the right upper corner! And of course, I'm not going to leave that low price for very long...So hurry...And if you think that's brash marketing, you're right, it is!)

More interesting is the question of whether it make sense to come out with a YA novel.

The publishing industry is generally convinced books for YA are in a winning category all on its own, covering all sorts of genres and sub-genres, and whose unifying feature is that they are aimed at young adults. There are some grumbles about this, most recently coming from the Wall Street Journal's Ms. Gurdon, who complains that too much YA literature is lurid, violent and in bad taste - perhaps even damaging for teens. That, predictably has caused a strong reaction in the YA blogosphere  (for a couple of fiery examples see below). But of course, I have never had any intentions of producing a violent book - actually that's not something that turns me on: I never liked Grand Guignol whether in the visual arts, the theatre, the movies or books. Grand Guignol in my view is cheap, debasing and a waste of time...There I said it!

So I rummaged in my past publications (for which I have the rights) and decided to use the plot of a paranormal/historical romance I published in Italian a few years ago - doing a total rewrite in English to adapt it to a YA audience.  When I presented my YA proposal - a paranormal trilogy called Fear of the Past -  to a literary agent sometime ago, the discussion bizarrely veered on my protagonist's age.  I thought he should be 19, the agent persuaded me that YA novels call for protagonists who are not over 18...Discussing his age this way seemed slightly Kafkaesque...Later I checked it on Wikipedia:  the agent was right, YA is defined as a teen audience not over 18 (!) But I wanted to go beyond the age question. I wanted to know whether my story was adapted to a YA audience, and beyond the question of audience, did she (the agent) feel it was a good yarn? I've always felt that "a good yarn" is what made the difference.

She stared at me and told me she'd give me the answer when my query letter turned up in her email thread. Immediately I imagined an email string as long as the Mississippi River: as I had first sent my query out to her six months earlier, I assumed I'd have to wait another six months before she got to it (by the way, I'm still waiting...).

Was she right? Wrong? Let me try to give you in a nutshell what this book is about and see what you think.

Forget the Past (the first book of the trilogy) starts with Tony suffering from burnout: a computer whiz kid and a top video game programmer since the age of 14, he's fed up and feels like an old man at age 17 (yes, I gave in to the agent: 17 not 19!).  He sets off looking for his roots in Sicily,  the homeland of his father. When he walks into an abandoned palazzo with a weird name on the front door: Circolo di Conversazione (Conversation Club), he meets the ghosts of his ancestors, going back 900 years. Among them is the Duchess of Floridia, a famous 18th century beauty. He falls in love and tries to escape with her to his own time. Can he make it?

That was my pitch but it didn't work. The agent was a little non-plussed by the idea: what, she said, he falls in love with an ancestor of his? Making it sound as if this was a novel form of incest. I weakly tried to defend myself, pointing out that 200 years separated them - a lot of generations. Actually, I bet many of us are closer to each other than we think, and  not worse off than young Tony and his Duchess of Floridia!

So much for Book One, then it is followed by Book Two, Reclaim the Present, where Tony meets a present-day Sicilian woman who reminds him of the Duchess (and she's older than him - yes, I have this fixation with age!) and Book Three, Remember the Future, where his self-quest comes to a happy conclusion. As you can see, all three sub-titles - referring to the passage of time -  tie neatly in the overall trilogy called Fear the Past. I thought that was rather clever, but it didn't cut any ice.

So I began to worry. Had I got my YA trilogy wrong? It covers several genres, and I thought that for YA that was supposed to be okay.

It's part paranormal : all the ancestors Tony meets in the palazzo are ghosts.

It's part time-travel: the ghosts act out the defining moments in their lives in short plays. The plays are meant to be a sort of after-life therapy, a way to prepare themselves for Judgment Day. Yet the Circolo di Conversazione is not set in a particular century: it  is a place out of time, where dead people linked by family ties meet and "live"  in a limited way since all they can do is talk and act in plays. Incidentally, I had trouble getting across the idea: a historical novel that uses historical figures yet is not a reconstruction of a particular time period didn't apparently fit into any category.

It's part romance: Tony falls in love with a more mature woman, the Duchess of Floridia, who teaches him about love and its limits. That of course sounds a little sulfurous but it's an important part of growing up...

It's part psychological: Tony is on a self quest and his coming-of-age experience doesn't come (as it does for most people) from interacting with his friends and immediate family. It comes from his ancestors and the wrenching discovery that he has more in common with an English adventurer who settled in Sicily in the 1800s (and transmitted his genes to him) than with his own father.

That part (in my humble view) is what really makes it a YA novel: the self-quest. But of course, that is also what makes it interesting for adults. If you think about it, as you live through your life, you are continually on a self-quest: the terms are different in different periods of your life, but the self-quest is always there. Probably the reason why so many adults read so-called YA literature: it is said that every Harry Potter book was eagerly awaited by parents as much as their kids... 

It also raises existential nurture vs. nature questions: to what extent does your immediate family determine who you are? Are you a throwback to some unknown ancestor? Tony is in a unique position: meeting all his ancestors in "the flesh" as it were, he's able to determine who he really takes after (the English adventurer).

Do we all harbor some form of "genetic memory" that makes us behave in sometimes unexpected ways? Young people as they grow up are confronted by comments coming from the adults around them,  like "he looks like his grandfather", "she behaves like her aunt" etc Most aggravating, especially when you realize there's probably some truth in them! And then, who knows to what ancestor your looks and your behavior hark back to?

Again, too many questions underlying a work of fiction make it sound too intellectual - egg-head stuff. Pretentious. Once more a no-no.

Okay, let's set aside these questions.

Bottom line, what I really want to know:  is a good YA novel a mixture of genres? Am I right in my conviction that YA is focused on a self-quest? Since Catcher in the Rye days (that was back in the late 1950s), self-quests are the determining feature of YA literature (something Ms Gurdon of the WSJ forgot to mention).

Just take a look at the basic strategy here: since self-publishing has become a real option, is a YA novel the best way to go?

I see this as an experiment. The digital revolution opens up options that did not exist before. But, as I've said in a previous post, in my view there's no reason to give up on the traditional road to publishing - either seeking out one of the Big Six or smaller, independent "niche" presses. I've got ready a novel that neatly fits into women's fiction (lucky,  this time it goes into a well-defined genre!). It's only wise to hedge one's bets...

But I'm eaten up by self doubts. Am I right to engage in this e-book experiment?

There are so many questions that need answering. Is anyone out there thinking of self-publishing too? And if you've made the jump, what happened next?  How did you do your marketing? How do you balance the marketing (it takes a lot of time and energy) with the writing you need to do? And with all those successful serial writers out there, à la Amanda Hocking, you really need to put that pen to paper, or bang, or click on your computer like mad!

Please share your thoughts!
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