The Story Behind ’89 Walls by Katie Pierson


I tell closeted fellow writers that everyone feels like a fraud—it’s not just them. All you have to do is print yourself a business card and put “writer” on it. When you claim the title you are one.

Becoming an author is a different story. If my long and detoured road to publication taught me anything, it’s that you only get to call yourself an author when you put on your big girl pants and act like one.

I’d never planned to write a novel: I just like to read them. But a conversation with a friend about attending my 20th high school reunion made me think about the random people you run into at these things: old crushes, old “frenemies.” The idea for Seth and Quinn’s reluctant romance just dropped into my lap.

’89 Walls is about the choices we make in love, sex, family loyalties, politics and friendship. It’s a fast-paced summer read for older teens and anyone who remembers the 1980s.

'89 WallsWriting the book felt like having a mental illness, a compulsion to chip away and reveal the essential story underneath. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel. I had to study the form, read books on writing, take classes and hire freelance editors. They told me the brutal truth about rookie authors trying to communicate in one book every thought they ever had.

The first draft took me three years. I worked on it between stints of paid work as a freelance writer and policy researcher for local non-profits and the daily labors of parenthood and homeownership.

I craved a traditional publishing contract for the usual reasons: an advance, high editorial standards, broad marketing and distribution, collegial support, and the all-important stamp of legitimacy.

My timing in seeking the above could only have been worse, however, if I’d attempted it during the zombie apocalypse.

I spent a humbling two years seeking an agent for my realistic historical young adult novel during an international economic collapse, the publishing industry’s subsequent version of its own Hunger Games, the e-print revolution, and the creation of special sections in bookstores for Paranormal Teen Romance.

To describe agents at that time as “risk averse” doesn’t begin to cut it. In the many, many rejections I received, I heard nice feedback about the writing and assurances that no one wanted to read realistic fiction, especially in an outdated 1989 setting.

I added two sentences to my query letter: “The truth horrifies but here it is: my 65,000-word novel is totally historical fiction. Ms. Agent, even if you, too, resent being perceived as retro by the “Glee” generation I hope you’ll consider ’89 Walls—a crossover, partisan, political love story with a sense of humor—for possible representation.”

Within weeks, I received multiple requests for the full manuscript and two offers of representation. One was from a highly respected but bored-seeming agent in a well-known New York agency. The other was from a second-career newbie in Toronto with lots of energy and ideas. I went with the latter.

Taking “the road less traveled by” made all the difference. As it turns out in this case, though, not in a good way.

Signing with an agent after five lonely years of writing and racking up rejections feels like sitting by a warm fire after circumnavigating the South Pole. This profound relief kept me from noticing for eighteen months that my agent’s priority was to build her own career—not mine.

Hindsight being 20/20, I now know that best practices for literary agents is to submit a manuscript to three to five editors at a time and carefully follow up with each before starting another round. Mine blasted ’89 Walls to thirty-five editors in one day.

By the time I figured out that her early-career priority was to prove herself responsive to a handful of editors’ tastes, the manuscript had already done its job (for her). At my insistence, she reluctantly followed up with half of the submissions. Then she stopped returning my calls. Frantic Internet research revealed that I was not alone in my experience with this agent or agency.

In retrospect, it was like finding out that not only is your Prince Charming a pimp, but that he’s your pimp.

My agent was an amateur. But I can admit now that my manuscript wasn’t ready for prime time either. Hiring a top-notch freelance editor to assist with another major revision before seeking representation would have resulted in a better book and a contract with a reputable agent.

It would likely also have helped me make a bigger impression on Big 5 editors. The version that they saw in 2012 had more nostalgia than edge, more politics than plot, and way too many distracting secondary characters.

The editors who did respond rejected the manuscript. But they offered detailed, supportive feedback that amounted to, “Good writing, but I can’t sell the sex scene and teens don’t care about politics or the late Eighties.”

I disagreed. Since when did editors worry about selling sex to readers? It seemed, too, that they drastically underestimated the intellect and interests of the Obama generation.

My mature response was to spend the next year pouting. I also freelanced full-time for a local teen pregnancy prevention initiative.

I re-started my agent search. After another round of rejections, I received enthusiastic, detailed requests for revisions from two top dealmakers. I spent a feverish six months working with a freelance editor and making the suggested changes. I re-submitted to both agents. Neither responded to my multiple communications.

At this point it finally hit me that my own standards of professionalism were higher than those of the gatekeepers I’d been trying to dazzle. I saw that literary agents actually didn’t have magical powers. I understand from other authors that there are excellent agents out there: I just haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them.

As I began researching small presses, another agent asked for my full manuscript. She praised my writing, sent me pages of insightful editorial feedback, and asked for a revision. Before proceeding, I shared with her my experience with my first agent.

She responded by withdrawing her conditional offer of representation and suggesting that I abandon ’89 Walls altogether. This confirmed my fear that my ex-agent’s promiscuous submissions on my behalf had branded my book as damaged goods.

Fury is a powerful motivator.

I submitted the manuscript to several small presses. One made an offer and two more expressed preliminary interest. After exhaustive online research and outreach to their authors, though, I couldn’t bring myself to sign a contract. I’d worked too hard and too long to hand over creative control and money-making potential to for all I knew were two guys with a software program.

It was a great day when it hit me that “making it” in traditional publishing—at least with this particular historical, political, realistic and slightly steamy YA novel—would mean lowering instead of raising my standards. I owed it to Seth and Quinn not to settle for mediocrity.

Determined to produce a book that could compete with Big 5 titles, I found a mentoring press to deliver the professionalism that I hadn’t been able to find in traditional publishing. Wise Ink Creative Publishing brought me back in from the cold.

Mentoring presses give authors access to a carefully-curated stable of talent, including professional editors, copy editors, proofreaders, cover designers, interior designers, and publicists. My cover designer’s day job, for example, is at Random House.

Several of my Big Five author friends admit that they loathe their books’ titles or cover designs. This sounds horrifying, like letting a stranger name your newborn. This process has taught me to trust my gut instincts: self-publishing gave me full creative control.

I studied Wise Ink’s extensive resources and read every book on self-publishing I could get my hands on. My resulting in a 15-page marketing and work plan has produce far more buzz for ’89 Walls than a traditional house could afford to generate for a debut author.

Wise Ink also helped me build my website and jump into social media. It put ’89 Walls into the regular distribution channels, and made sure it could hold its own among its Big 5 peers on the bookstore shelves.

There’s no advance. I assumed the financial risk but earn 100% of the profit. Speaking of, you can order ’89 Walls directly from Itasca Books Distribution or use this cool book store finder to buy it from (and support) a local, independently-owned store near you. It’s also available at Amazon. And please visit my website at www.katiepierson.net.

If there’s a moral to my publishing story it’s this: “when all else fails, raise your expectations.”

———————————

Katie PiersonKatie Pierson freelances for local non-profits, using her background in public policy and grassroots organizing to overthrow the patriarchy one introverted step at a time. When she’s not writing fiction, she returns library books, makes soup, and tries to be cooler than she really is by hip-hopping at the YMCA. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in American History from the University of Pennsylvania (where she dabbled briefly in being a College Republican) and a Master’s in American History from the University of Minnesota. She grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and now lives with her family in a suburb of Minneapolis. ’89 Walls is her first novel.

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