When people talk about the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, they often talk about royalty percentages, or marketing budgets, or prestige versus persistence. Sometimes, though, they talk about one of the most striking but underreported differences: the freedom to adapt, to flex — to experiment.
Jacqueline Dooley is testing that freedom with her very personal first novel, and she sat down with me to talk about her own self-publishing experiment, and the adventure she’s just now embarking upon.
Jason: Jackie, let’s just jump right into it, shall we? Your debut novel, Doorways to Arkomo, faces a very difficult topic head-on: cancer. And not just cancer, but your protagonist is a very sick little girl. What inspired this story?
Jackie: This is going to sound a little (or a lot) cheesy, but I didn’t choose the topic of cancer, it chose me. My oldest daughter, Ana, was diagnosed with a malignant liver tumor when she was eleven. She had a liver transplant in February 2013. I blogged daily (sometimes more) during her illness. The blog was widely read by friends, family and many people in my community. People — strangers, even — were moved by Ana’s story.
Most surprisingly to me, many people commented that they loved my writing. I’ve been writing my entire life and I’d always dreamed of being a novelist, but I never had the confidence.
But Ana’s blog changed that. When Ana had her transplant and got better, I sat down to write Doorways to Arkomo. It was an idea that was born in the hospital and inspired very much by Ana’s bravery and her darkest days.
Many people argue that today’s young-adult and middle-grade fiction is filled with increasingly dark themes. But I think it’s been that way for a while. What do you think attracts young readers to stories like this?
I agree that it’s been that way for a long time. One of my favorite books is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. There’s a chapter in this book titled, “The Family Begins to Starve.” Charlie is poor and hungry throughout the book — and he’s mostly alone and kids can relate to this because childhood is lonely. It’s also scary, sometimes terrifying.
At that age, you’re still trying to parse what’s real and what’s imaginary. You’re still trying to determine what’s threatening and what is safe.
Children are perpetually trying to navigate what is unchartered territory for them. I think they recognize themselves in characters like Charlie Bucket, Harry Potter, Hazel Grace and Susie Salmon (from The Lovely Bones) and this is very validating, even if the main character’s story is truly horrifying. There’s so much more to say about this — children want to be seen. When they read about characters that are brave, strong and smart in the face of terrible hardship, I think they feel inspired and powerful because these characters are inspiring and powerful.
I’m really interested in learning more about how your daughter’s illness, and your family’s strength during that difficult time, inspired the book.
I thought of Arkomo during (Ana’s) first forty-day stay in the hospital when she was originally diagnosed. If you’ve ever been stuck in the hospital for an extended period of time, you know what I mean. The hospital is separate from the rest of the world. It operates within its own rules and its own sense of time. I felt it was the kind of place where magic was possible (like graveyards, churches and airports).
I do love stories about magic that bleeds into the real world. I’ve never thought of a hospital as one of those hotspots, but it makes perfect sense. It’s a place of extremes, of transitions — of waiting.
It’s like a waystation—a place in between places. You feel like you’ll never leave (and some people don’t). Arkomo became my escape (and eventually became Grace’s — the main character in the book).
Now, if I’m correct, Arkomo is also something of a family affair, isn’t it? Not only was it inspired by your daughter’s brave story, but your mother has been contributing to this project as well.
My mother, Judith Krongard, has been working closely with me over the last few months to create pencil sketches (for) the book. Now retired, she is an illustrator and has been drawing her entire life. I really wanted her to create sketches in charcoal and pencil because I’d loved the sketches in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Her drawings have really helped bring the story to life and it’s been a pure joy working with her. We’re now working together on drawings for Book Two.
Earlier I mentioned that independent authors are well-equipped for flexibility, adaptation, experimentation. You’re doing something very unique—and quite bold—with this book.
Yes! I’m giving away 100% of the profits earned—from book sales during the first year of publication—to charities and organizations that help sick children. The book was published (this month), so I’m hoping to make enough money by May 2015 to write some fairly decent checks.
I love this idea.
I’ve listed the charities I’ve chosen on the book’s web site. This is my way of giving back, but I’m also trying to generate awareness about the book. I want kids who are ill and stuck in the hospital to find it and read it (and love it)!
Are the book’s earnings entirely profit, or did you put money into the project? At what point do the earnings put the book into the black, and start counting towards your charities?
I’ll need to sell (roughly) 222 paperback versions of the book (or 650 ebooks) to recover the money I invested in self-publishing. After that it’s all profit — and all going to kids who need it.
You’re part of a rising tide of authors who are going it alone. What drew you to self-publishing? Was that an easy decision to make?
My brother-in-law, Stefan Bolz, was ultimately the catalyst that helped me decide to self-publish. He’s a self-published author and has been very supportive since the beginning. He created a Facebook group of independent authors that played a large role in helping me decide to self-publish. I’d originally planned to try and go the traditional route.
I’m always interested in what changes an author’s mind and sets them on the independent path. What steered you away from traditional publishing towards self-publishing?
I learned that indie authors are really supportive of each other. It’s an incredibly inclusive community of people, whereas traditional publishing felt very exclusive and difficult to break into. I sent Doorways to about thirty agents before I made the final decision, though. It wasn’t easy. Just ask my cover designer — I changed my mind at least three times before deciding to work with him!
I feel I should interrupt here to point out that I’m your cover designer, and yes, you did change your mind several times. (Again, a perfect demonstration of an indie author’s ability to pivot!)
Indeed! Your early advice helped me make my final decision to take the self-publishing leap. But I also really wanted you to do my cover after seeing your work. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work with you if I went the traditional route.
Was there a particular moment when you just knew you were going to self-publish?
After receiving about ten rejections in one day, I decided I didn’t have the fortitude to keep trying. Doorways doesn’t quite fit (into) a specific genre, so although I (was) told over and over again that my writing is strong, agents kept telling me they didn’t know how to sell it.
I’m sure other indies reading this interview right now just groaned.
The thing is, at forty-three, I’m not a new writer. I’ve been writing for years. I realized that I didn’t need an agent to validate what I already knew about myself. There’s a whole new frontier out there for writers and I want to be part of it.
Well, good writing often sells itself, as I’m sure you’re going to find with Doorways—now that there’s no one standing between you and readers.
I love being able to reach readers quickly, and the early feedback I’m getting is really validating. Even so, I think it can be difficult for independent authors to reach readers because of the sheer volume of books on the market, not to mention places to buy them. So even writers with great books have to put the time and effort in to get their work out there.
What’s next for you? You mentioned before that this book is only the first in the larger Spirit Oak’s Gift series — when can readers expect to read more?
The next and final book, Doorways Home, will be completed in (the) fall. It’s already written — I’m just going through it and doing some restructuring and rewriting. I plan to submit it to my editor in late July/early August. I was originally going to write a trilogy, but it feels like a two-part series is just about right for Doorways.
Any projects in mind after this series is finished?
I have two other book concepts I’m working on as well — one is an extension of the world of Arkomo and will likely be a trilogy. The other is a young adult ghost story that I’m really excited about. Stephen King is one of my earliest influences.
Speaking of other projects, I can’t let you go without asking about your unpublished first novel. You describe it on your web site this way: Of Night and Chaos features Eros, the God of Love, as a middle manager at Mt. Olympus. He gets into trouble after a clerical error causes a man to fall in love with a building. That description instantly made me think of both Neil Gaiman’s work and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, which is about a girl who falls in love with a black hole. You’ve got to tell me — and readers — more about this one. Will we ever get to read this one?
Ha! I wrote this book in my twenties and submitted it to exactly one place — Tor Books — before giving up. I can’t believe there’s a book or two out there that remind you of the plot, which seems completely crazy to me now that I’m in my forties.
That probably means I should self-publish it.
I think it’s got some real promise! Jackie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your new book with me—I wish you all the best with your first year. You’re an inspiration to parents and authors everywhere.
Thanks, Jason. The feeling is mutual — you’ve been hugely inspirational to me. I appreciate your advice, and the advice of the other self-published writers I’ve met who are helping me navigate this new landscape.
If you’re interested in supporting Jackie’s book, you can learn about the charities she’s supporting and how to buy a copy of Doorways to Arkomo on the book’s web site.