By Dennis Abrams
How does a first-time YA author get published when she doesn’t know the first thing about how publishing works? Slush piles of unsolicited manuscripts are seemingly a thing of the past — but if you’re Leigh Fallon, the answer was surprisingly easy — Inkpop.
Born in South Africa before moving back to Ireland with her family, Fallon did not grow up dreaming of becoming a writer. But after putting her banking career on hold in order to start a family, the desire to do something more with her life began to grow, although she was unsure exactly what until one afternoon. “I was sitting in a car waiting for my daughter to get out of ballet class, my twin boys in the back of the car, when an idea came into my head. I started jotting down ideas. The story moved from paper to notebook –- always in long hand, until six months later, I was finished.”
What she had when she finished was titled The Carrier of the Mark, the first book in a three-volume series of paranormal romance thrillers based on ancient Celtic mythology that take place in contemporary Ireland. But when she was finished with her first draft, Fallon realized she knew nothing about publishing, and didn’t even have an idea of where to start. “So I bought The Writer’s Handbook, and started looking up agencies in the UK and Ireland,” shes says. “I wrote what can only be described as a remedial query letter and sent it to a few agencies, as well as to local publishers who would accept unsolicited manuscripts. But all I got was rejections. My manuscript wasn’t ready. My letter sucked as well — truly heinous. I was stumbling around in the dark.”
But then she discovered Inkpop — one of the first interactive writing platforms for teens backed by a major publisher. Launched by HarperCollins in 2009, Inkpop combines community publishing, user-generated content, and social networking to connect aspiring writers of teen literature with talent-spotting readers and publishing professionals. Fallon uploaded her manuscript and almost immediately it caught the attention of readers – within three weeks it had risen to the site’s “Top Five” most read and highly rated manuscripts.
And along with its popularity came suggestions from young readers, the very same readers who would be the book’s target audience if and when it should be published. Some of their suggestions were minor; others were major, such as changing the book’s opening to give it a more immediate dramatic impact. All were taken into account as Fallon continued to work and rework her manuscript. Her reasoning? “If there’s something there that irks them, I should change it. If they don’t like it, the readers won’t either.”
Not only had Falllon’s book been discovered by readers, it had been spotted by an editor at HarperTeen who posted her own review. Leigh had just begun incorporating those suggestions when she received a letter from her, just letting her know how much she had enjoyed it, how much it had stayed with her, and how much she wanted to work with her — but with no concrete offer.
Then, a couple of days later, Fallon had won the holy grail of all aspiring writers — a publishing contract from a major publisher. It had just been a year since Fallon had jotted down the first notes for Carrier of the Mark, which, as it turns out was HarperCollins’ first acquisition from Inkpop. “For many people the rise to ‘Top Five’ on Inkpop is a long process, but not for Leigh. The Carrier of the Mark shot to the top of the list. This was one of our first key indicators that it was an outstanding project,” said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
The Carrier of the Mark, was purchased by HarperCollins in January, and published in early October; foreign rights have gone to Brazil, Italy, Poland, Turkey and the UK.
Fallon’s experience is just one example about how the path to authorship is changing in these digital days.
So, are social media sites the new slush pile? Are unsolicited manuscripts going to be turned over to readers to be evaluated before being looked at by publishing professionals? In the press release announcing the acquisition of The Carrier of the Mark, Katz said, “The opinions of our readers matter to us. Inkpop is HarperCollins Children’s Books’ first site (and not the last) to really put the users’ voice and ideas in the forefront. Social media is incredibly empowering if used correctly, and HarperCollins recognizes this and is gearing up to make social media the cornerstone of all its digital endeavors.”
Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor to Publishing Perspectives, responsible for children’s books and media. Contact Dennis via email here.