These things happened: I wrote a manuscript, toyed with the possibility of publishing, waltzed a short round with literary agents, grew rapidly disenchanted, and put the entire project on hold—waiting, I thought, until a different and better opportunity might present itself.
This is the opportunity. It’s an experiment.
The plot and the conflict
The story I wrote is a middle grade children’s novel called Wednesday the Raven. It’s about birds and cakes and poetry, finding things that are lost and the long journeys we take that may or may not lead us home. People seem to like it.
One could believe that writing a manuscript is the biggest challenge when creating a book. One would be wrong. Compared with the murky business that follows, writing the words is the easy part. It’s after writing The End that things get tricky.
The publishing world, for all its charms, can be a strange, uncomfortable place for a new author of fiction. You need to negotiate the dos and don’ts of query letters, seduce agents and pigeonhole your audience. You need to close your eyes and sign over your rights, sign on to deadlines and forget basic economic sense. You need to wait months, or maybe years before your story sees daylight. All in all, it adds up to a rough ride for us tender creative types.
The alternative is self-publishing, the world of hacks and charlatans, headstrong visionaries, and a growing group of quietly successful heroes. Self-publishing lacks the built-in editors and prestige of publishing houses but shines brightly with independence and more realistic financial reward. It is a flexible, unregulated, wild and wooly DIY world. One could argue it is the most obvious and attractive choice for a new author and a first novel.
This is where the experiment begins.
I’ve created a project in which I serialize the completion of my story Wednesday the Raven. What does this mean? I’m editing a book in public. The current manuscript clocks in at thirty chapters, and for thirty-odd weeks I’ll publish and review a chapter per week. I’ll post the reviews on the book’s project page and post the chapters in a public Github repository—a version control system that tracks all draft revisions. Readers are invited and encouraged to suggest changes as I chronicle the technical, functional, and emotional details of the work, and in the end, we’ll have a book—ebook and (if the world wants it) print. The big dream.
I previously followed the traditional publishing route with this manuscript:
- Write queries.
- Mail queries.
- Wait for lightning to strike.
I compiled a list of agents and began at the top, intending to spend the next several months working my way down to the slushy bottom. I expected little from my first short round of emails, and to my surprise received requests for the complete manuscript. It felt suspiciously easy. I shivered with delight and sent replies. I waited. I waited some more. And gradually, one by one, the agents answered: they liked the story, they said, and they didn’t know how to sell it.
This is where I paused and stepped back.
Until this point I had viewed the story as writer and reader. Viewing it as a marketer meant something else. Does it wear the marks of a blockbuster? Does it fit this or that niche? If the peg doesn’t fit, can we pound it into place? The promise of sales can weigh heavy on art. I wasn’t sure this novel or its author would function well under the pressure.
I had received good feedback from my test readers, but maybe they had missed something. Or maybe I had. I knew the novel wasn’t perfect, but maybe the agents knew something they wouldn’t tell me. Or maybe I didn’t want to know. The whole exercise left me feeling disagreeable and certain I had chosen the wrong path for the book. For now, I thought, to hell with this system. Let’s embrace independence.
Maybe an imperfect first novel makes a perfect vehicle for experimentation. It’s one of many reasons to release this way (some of which contradict each other), but the bottom line is this: a writer wants to find and engage readers and to be read. By working openly and transparently, authors have a special chance to build and connect directly with a community of like-minded readers and reach that goal.
How will this work?
The book is free to read online as it grows and develops—the book site will show the latest version where I post the weekly chapters. Readers can read the chapter reviews here (they’re also listed on the project page), subscribe to updates, and those who want to be more involved can track and suggest changes at the Github repository. Everyone is invited to participate. Results, of course, are not guaranteed—this is still an experiment. There is also the risk of reward, and unexpected success in common hours, and…I’m not sure. Who knows? Let’s decide it’s something good.
Maybe I’m beginning to sympathize with those agents. I like this novel too, but selling it is another story.