New Voices: Isabel Ibañez & Phil Stamper on The Journey to Publication

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I am delighted to introduce two YA debut authors to our Cynsations readers today.

Isabel Ibañez is the author of Woven in Moonlight (Page Street Kids, 2020), a fantasy drawn from Bolivian politics. Phil Stamper is the author of The Gravity of Us (Bloomsbury YA, 2020), a contemporary queer romance inspired by the lives of NASA families.

Both authors discuss their publication journeys including their perseverance amidst rejection.

Isabel Ibañez

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

So, for nearly a decade I owned and ran a design and letterpress studio where I illustrated hundreds of greeting cards, wedding invitations, and other fun paper products. For years, I worked on my style that would well in both digital and letterpress mediums.

Around two years ago, I switched over to digital illustration and my style shifted a bit but still maintained its whimsical charm.

When my editor reached out, asking if I knew of any Bolivian artist they could contract for the cover, I was like—well, I’m a Bolivian artist…could I do it!? I sent over my portfolio and the rest is history.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

Because I ran a small business for seven years, I actually felt very prepared for all of the marketing and promotion I’d have to do for my writing career. I understood the need for consistency in determining your brand and marketing strategies.

I stepped into the role easily and have actually enjoyed this role. I’m proud of the business I had, and I’m especially grateful for the years of experience I learned from it!

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Nothing is a guarantee in publishing. You might wait years for an answer that never comes. At every level, you have to wait.

Querying and finding representation could take months. Even years.

I received eighty-nine rejections before signing with my first agent.

I wrote four books before Woven in Moonlight (Page Street Kids, 2020) was published and even then, we didn’t know if any publisher would want to buy the book. Because during the submission process there were more rejections.

Until one publisher said yes—and the way forward suddenly was a real thing.

I think my worst moments are a compilation of several sad days, when there was no news, or we’d received another hard pass.

As for my best moments—these are small and big events that have shaped my writing career for the better.

Finding your people in this world is so important. You need all the encouragement you can get it, as well as a safe place to vent.

Seeing my book in Barnes & Noble was another big moment for me—incredibly surreal, and utterly unforgettable. And then when the most amazing review from NPR came in…that made my year.

I am still also so happy and grateful my publisher hired me to design and illustrate the cover. What a dream come true! I can literally say that Woven in Moonlight is a Bolivian story, inside and out.

Isabel’s writing friends: Adalyn Grace, Adrienne Young, Kristin Dwyer, Shelby Mahurin, and Rachel Griffin

Phil Stamper

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

First of all, thank you for the interview!

The inspiration for The Gravity of Us (Bloomsbury YA, 2020) stemmed from my admiration for the ’60s space race and the missions that followed.

Over the last decade, I’ve read dozens of astronaut/engineer memoirs, watched every documentary I could find, and I’ve even been known to raid antique shops in my search for LIFE magazines from the era.

While I’ve always been fascinated by the science and technology behind these missions, one thing always called out to me in the background of every memoir or documentary.

The astronaut families essentially became the celebrities of this era, frequently gracing the covers of magazines and giving interviews for national news outlets.

This meant the astronauts’ spouses and children had to be immaculately dressed, polished, and ready to entertain, all while not knowing if their husbands or fathers would come home alive that night.

In The Gravity of Us, I wanted to capture this brilliant tension while also showcasing a contemporary queer love story.

Phil reading through LIFE magazines.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

I love this question, because there really is such a shift when you transition from writer to author, but no one really discusses it. I had a long wait time between my book deal and publication—more than two years!—so that gave me a lot of time to understand this transition.

Marketing-wise, it was pretty clear: I suddenly had a specific product to promote. But outside of that, it was pretty confusing.

Through this time, I sought advice from more established authors. I was always adjusting my online presence as things came up. For example, once ARCs came into the world, I got flooded with requests from readers who wanted a copy, even though I had no control over the process!

Setting up an auto-response, a FAQ page, and a media kit—plus creating a Google Form to give bloggers an easy way to interview me—was a great way to keep up with all these new requests.

I found early on that the most important thing when approaching this transition is to set these boundaries, because if you don’t, you’ll never be able to move forward with new projects. I can’t respond to every request or tweet or DM or question right away.

As a people pleaser, I hate that, but balancing my full-time job, promoting The Gravity of Us, writing and editing various books on contract, and furthering my author brand online doesn’t allow much time for this. It’s hard to find this balance, and I’m not quite there yet, but maybe I’ll perfect it one day!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

I’d say my main advice is to keep trying. Focus more on the process of writing than on one specific book. The market’s always moving, and things are so subjective.

I know every time I write a book, I get the feeling that that is my best work. But as soon as I put my soul into another piece, I realize it’s not true. So keep improving your craft. Keep trying out new stories. Write what comes naturally to you, even write what doesn’t. Try a bit of everything, really.

I received 92 total rejections from agents between two books, and 84 rejections from editors between three books. This industry is not kind to its artists—even the nicest rejections hurt, bad. But I think you grow so much with each rejection and with each new story, that as long as you keep trying, one day it will turn around.

Just know that for every supposed “overnight success” there’s usually years of frustration leading up to it that we never hear much about. Know you’re not alone, and stick with your writer friends—they’ll get you through the worst of it!

Phil speaking at the launch of The Gravity of Us

Cynsational Notes:

Isabel Ibañez is the author of Woven in Moonlight (Page Street, 2020), which received two starred reviews and earned praise from NPR.

She was born in Boca Raton, Florida, and is the proud daughter of two Bolivian immigrants.

A true word nerd, she received her degree in creative writing and has been a Pitch Wars mentor since 2016. Isabel is an avid moviegoer and loves hosting family and friends around the dinner table.

She currently lives in Winter Park, Florida, with her husband, their adorable dog, and a serious collection of books. Say hi on social media at @IsabelWriter09.

Phil Stamper grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt.

He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. The Gravity of Us is his first novel, but he’s no stranger to writing.

His self-insert Legend of Zelda fanfiction came with a disclaimer from the 14-year old author: “Please if you write a review don’t criticize my work.” He has since become more open to critique… sort of.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.