Guest Post: Lee Wind: From Kickstarter to Book – The Wild Roller Coaster of Publishing My Debut YA Novel

Learn more about Lee Wind

By Lee Wind
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a saying that a work of art isn’t complete until it has been witnessed.

So the book I wrote that would have completely changed my life if I’d read it as a fifteen-year-old wasn’t complete. Not until it had readers.

Over six years, the manuscript for Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill had been written and re-written, eight full revisions in all, with the final polish under the brilliant editorial direction of National Book Award-winner M.T. Anderson at a Highlights Foundation workshop. It was ready, but with no readers, it wasn’t complete.

My agent at the time told me it had been submitted, over a period of two years, to more than twenty editors. In all that time, it had only received five rejections, with the rest not even bothering to respond. No book deal meant no readers.

I didn’t doubt the merit of my story. I didn’t doubt that I’m a good writer. I did doubt the courage of traditional publishing to put out a story that would be controversial, as the novel’s hook is a closeted teen boy discovering a secret from history—that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed letters that could prove the two men were in love. Romantic love.

This doubt was strengthened by what happened to the nonfiction book for young readers that I had sold to an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015. The Queer History Project: No Way, They Were Gay? included five chapters on men who loved men in history, and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed were one of those chapters. Everything was going great until two weeks after Trump’s election, I got a phone call. Suddenly, they absolutely couldn’t publish my book.

I got the rights back in January of 2016, and my agent at the time told me it was so strong she’d sell it in three weeks… It was sent, I was told, to eight editors. Nine months passed, and no responses. Not even a “no, thank you.”

I was sure I was being preemptively banned by a traditional publishing industry too afraid to rock the cultural boat that was suddenly, with the election of our 45th President, in stormy seas.

Now I’ve been blogging about books, politics, and culture for LGBTQ kids and teens since 2007. I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read? has done well, gaining an audience across the world that’s built over time—The blog passed 2.5 million page loads in July 2018. So I thought, maybe one way to reach readers would be to post chapters on my blog.

Starting in September of 2017, over 32 weeks, I serialized the entire novel. I knew people were reading it, and I liked the idea of it being available for free, forever.

But the experience of reading the manuscript, clicking for each chapter, felt different than reading a polished, published book with copyedited text, interior design, an author’s note, discussion questions, and all the other great stuff that makes a book in your hands such a transformative experience. How could I create that? How could I reach more readers?

Lee visited with the Pasadena City College Queer Alliance in May 2018.

Publishing a book professionally is expensive. Copyediting, design, cover art, setting up printing and wholesale fulfillment—it’s thousands of dollars if you’re doing it right. $5,600 was what I needed to cover those expenses. And wouldn’t it be amazing if in addition to having the money to do that, I could have the money to donate copies of the book to LGBTQ teens, as my book is a story that could empower them?

That’s where the idea of crowdfunding came in. A friend argued with me that it sounded like a lot of work for what wasn’t in the big scheme of things that much money. Couldn’t I take a loan, or ask two or three wealthy friends?

But I loved the idea of crowdfunding being a barn-raising. Of the community coming together to not just help me professional publish Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill but to also raise enough money to donate some dramatic number (I settled on 400 copies) of the book to LGBTQ and Allied teens.

In January 2018 I launched the Kickstarter project, and we fully funded in six days! The campaign went on for a full thirty days, and by the end 182 people had donated enough money to give away 810 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and Allied teens!

Now with the funding secured, the publish date was set, and I put on my publisher hat and got to work. I sent the manuscript out asking for blurbs. I held a cover design contest. I hired a book designer. I tested out copy editors, found a great one, and had them do their thing. I printed ARCs. I submitted the book for reviews. I printed up bookmarks, and started using them instead of business cards. I signed up for marketing programs, to let librarians and the rest of the trade know about my book.

And I gave away the first 260 copies of the ARCs to LGBTQ teens at four summer sessions of Camp Brave Trails.

Lee speaking to teens at Camp Brave Trails

I got a curve ball thrown at me when on July 25, 2018 it was revealed that my agent at the time had lied about submissions, and rejections, and two book offers that were ‘pending.’ She lied to about 60 other clients as well.

The book I’d decided to crowdfund and author publish may never even have been seen by any editor! I hadn’t been preemptively banned by a publishing industry in need of courage, I’d just been preemptively screwed over by a criminally manipulative agent! (Needless to say, Danielle Smith is no longer an agent, and I’m now represented by the ethical and wonderful Marietta Zacker.)

But the train had left the station: 182 people were waiting for their copies of Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. I’d committed to give away 810 copies to LGBTQ teens. And I was already getting strong trade reviews! Librarians were interested! I’d started booking some events! And I’d told the world that I was publishing this book. That couldn’t change now.

So Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill publishes on Tuesday October 2, 2018 (BookBaby).

It’s the story of Wyatt, who is fifteen, and nobody in his homophobic small town of Lincolnville, Oregon, knows that he’s Gay. Not even his best friend (and accidental girlfriend) Mackenzie.

Then he discovers a secret from actual history: Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy!

Since everyone loves Lincoln, Wyatt’s sure that if the world knew about it, they would treat Gay people differently and it would solve everything about his life.

So Wyatt outs Lincoln online, triggering a media firestorm that threatens to destroy everything he cares about—and he has to pretend more than ever that he’s straight. . . . Only then he meets Martin, who is openly Gay and who just might be the guy Wyatt’s been hoping to find.

And here’s hoping it reaches readers.

Lee signing ARCs of Queer As a Five Dollar Bill
for librarians at the ALA Conference in June 2018.

Guest Post: Ann Jacobus: Critique Group Makes Frances Lee Hall’s Publishing Dream Come True

By Ann Jacobus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

It’s an unusual moment when our writing group is in full agreement. But in this case, we knew we had to bring our friend Frances Lee Hall’s wonderful middle grade story to young readers.

The question was how?

Frances Lee Hall

We had all just attended her memorial service. Frances died suddenly on Nov. 26, 2016.

She had also been through hell and high water, as only a writer can, with her middle-grade manuscript, Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker. We had critiqued it through more than one revision and loved her story like our own.

One of Frances’s favorite expressions was “Yaaaay!”

She had always been so supportive of each of us and we couldn’t imagine letting her dream go unrealized.

The story really begins at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program.

I met Frances, a San Francisco native, there in 2005 during her first residency. We were in a workshop together and both her writing and her ability to critique others’ work made a deep impression on me.

As author Annemarie O’Brien says, “Frances would often let everyone speak, and then at the very end she’d toss out some profound comment that would make us all stop, think, and reevaluate.”

When my family moved to San Francisco in 2009, Frances and I formed a writing group. Naturally, we had to name ourselves and chose “Beyond the Margins.” Annemarie, Helen Pyne, Linden McNeilly, Christine Dowd, and Sharry Wright soon joined us.

Ann, Frances and Annemarie O’Brien

“Frances was a terrific cheerleader, role model and editor,” Helen says, and in late 2013, we celebrated with homemade fried wonton and California wine when Frances’ agent Marietta Zacker sold Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker to international publisher Egmont USA.

We had been expecting it. As her former VCFA advisor Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “Frances’ writing came from a place of light and tenderness. Throughout her process, she thought of the child readers and drew on her own inner child to inform how best to lift them up. Her work exhibited a heightened emotional intelligence and a loving respect for tradition, elders, and intergenerational relationships.”

Indeed, Frances’ protagonist Lily is a determined and energetic third-grade soccer player who finds her Grandpa, Gung Gung, and his traditional ways perplexing in their newly dependent relationship. Lily struggles to find common ground with him, and in her mounting frustration alienates some of her friends and teammates. The story is heart-felt but also very funny.

“Frances did such a great job capturing goofy kid humor,” says Helen.

Lily Lo is a universal story about family and friendship, and it’s also the kind of children’s novel Frances wished she’d had access to growing up in the Bay Area. She said that, although her elementary school was 75-to-80 percent Asian-American, she had never read a story as a child that featured a character or a family like hers.

Cynthia says, “I know the heightened challenges for authors of color and their writing weighed heavily on her. It’s something we talked about.”

Frances was an early fervent supporter of We Need Diverse Books. Cynthia continues, “My heart contracts at the thought of how much more welcome she might feel today than even a few years ago. I know she would be encouraged by progress made and delighted that her book will become a part of that rising conversation centered on inclusivity.”

In 2014, things moved very slowly at Egmont with Frances’s book, but we were all shocked when the publisher closed its U.S. operations a year later, leaving Lily Lo and other stories stranded.

Frances and Marietta re-submitted and almost sold Lily Lo a second time, only to have that fall through as well.

Frances persisted, although she was deeply disappointed. She continued working and submitting until tragedy struck. She suffered a brain aneurysm in November 2016 and died a week later leaving behind her husband Lance and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Emmie.

Everyone who knew Frances was heartbroken. So many people turned out to celebrate her life at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown, San Francisco, a week after Thanksgiving. Friends and writers across the country celebrated her life online.

Before Frances became a children’s writer, she worked in television. We knew she had an Emmy, but she never mentioned she had won three from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work in TV writing and production. We learned this after she died.

Beyond the Margins, along with several other of her writer friends, decided to do something to honor Frances and her writing.

Another one of her manuscripts that we love is called Paper Son. It’s about a Chinese boy who goes alone through the San Francisco Angel Island Immigration Station in the 1930s, driven by the dream of reuniting with his father in the United States.

Helen says, “Frances’s young protagonist, Moon, suffers hardship and heartbreak, but he’s strong and resilient and an inspirational main character.”

However, as Annemarie says, “We selected Lily Lo (for publication) because it had proven debut promise and was ready, requiring no revisions beyond copyedits.”

None of us were willing to revise Frances’s stories or change her words on a deeper level. Lily Lo had been through many, many drafts and had already been revised with an outstanding editor.

With Lance’s support, Marietta followed up on a few leads for possible posthumous publication. But traditional publishers understandably proved reluctant to take on a debut without a living author behind it. So, we began a search for an alternative.

Annemarie knew of a hybrid publisher in Oakland called Inkshares. Their model involves crowd-funding with pre-orders to cover all the upfront costs of traditional publishing—or editorial development, cover and book design, sales, promotion and distribution.

Annemarie says, “Promoting Lily Lo for pre-orders was a group effort led by Ann who made it simple for us to email friends, create posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter. It was easy to advocate for Frances because of the support we got from her family and friends, as well as from the VCFA community.”

The original goal for was 750 pre-orders. In the funding phase, Inkshares asks $30 for a pre-order package that includes the book, an ebook, and “updates” from the author. But we soon opted for the Inkshares “Quill” path which only required 250 pre-orders.

This route is closer to a self-publishing model in that it does not include a developmental edit or cover design. But it also returns a larger percentage of net sales to the author–or her estate in this case, and specifically, her daughter Emmie’s education fund.

Rita Williams Garcia

A graphic-artist friend from Frances’ TV production days, May Key Lee, designed a dynamite cover. We funded ahead of schedule and now Lily Lo is in pre-production. Inkshares will do the copy-edits, and we provided front and back matter, blurbs (including one from Rita Williams Garcia!), forewords, and a bio.

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker should be printed and available by late summer.

Frances’s family joins us in thanking all those who have taken part in bringing this story and its author’s memory to life. Yaaaay!

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker is available now for pre-order at $10.99 a copy.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Jacobus writes children’s and YA fiction, blogs and tweets about it, teaches writing and volunteers on a suicide crisis line.

She’s published short fiction, essays and poetry in anthologies, journals, and magazines, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

San Francisco is home to her and her family.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Marietta Zacker

By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Marietta Zacker is an agent at Nancy Galt Literary Agency.

Marietta has experienced children’s books from every angle – teaching, marketing, publishing and bookselling.

She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions and illustrators who add a different dimension to the story.

Some of the books she is championing in 2015 include The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt (Scholastic), Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton (Simon & Schuster), Just a Duck? by Carin Bramsen (Random House), The Struggles of Johnny Cannon by Isaiah Campbell (Simon & Schuster), Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon & Schuster), Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan (Hyperion).

Among other things, she is a proud Latina and the Agent Liaison for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Marietta is active on Twitter under the name @AgentZacker

She is interviewed on Cynsations today by Elisabeth Norton for SCBWI Europolitan conference

At Europolitan, you’ll be presenting “Finding Seeds of Gold” and you will present about how to determine if your work is ready to submit. From your point of view as an agent, are most of the submissions you receive “ready?” What would you say is the biggest difference between the submissions you see that are “ready” vs. those that are not?

I believe that most people truly believe that they are ready to submit when they do, but one of the questions I typically suggest writers and artists ask themselves is: “If someone were to offer to publish this text or illustration tomorrow, would I be proud of seeing it ‘as is’ on the pages of a book?”

Since essentially eradicating the need to print submissions in order to take to the post office, many send queries via e-mail to ‘test’ whether or not their work is good enough.

It’s true, the business is subjective and we have all passed on projects that went on to get published, but we read too many queries and can usually see, feel and read right through queries that, even if technically masterful, are missing the heart and the essence of the storytelling. And so we pass.

I highly recommend printing your work and holding it in your hands (whether it’s text or an illustration). It makes it more official, it’s tougher to convince yourself that it’s ready to go when it’s not, it also allows you to see the work in ways you never have before.

Hit PRINT first, review it, let it sit, review it again.

If you would be proud to see it published ‘as is’ the very next day, then go ahead and click SEND.

You’ll also be leading a session about “How and Why Characters Bloom” with a discussion of “character-driven” projects. Does “character-driven” mean “not action packed?” Would you say that “character-driven” projects are “quiet” projects? Where do “character-driven” projects fit in to today’s market landscape?

You’ll have to come to Amsterdam to get most of these answers.

In all seriousness, though, the key to remember is that there is no magic bullet. One description does not negate the other, nor should anyone feel that their work must be described in one singular way.

Ideally, there are multiple layers within each project and a variety of ways to describe any story. I firmly believe that the stories that resonate most with readers are ones that are as complex, as diverse and as multi-layered as the children and young adults who made the choice to keep the book open and continue to read and explore.

The theme of Europolitan 2015 is “Creativity in Bloom: Growing Beyond Boundaries,” and we will be exploring the topic of diversity in children’s literature. Some authors express reservations about writing diverse characters because they themselves are not a member of the same community or group that their character is. They fear backlash if, despite their best attempts at research and having proof-readers from the represented community, they get something “wrong.”


Do you have any thoughts as an agent for writers who may be anxious about getting diversity “wrong” in their project? 

You have to be humble, you have to be willing to learn, you have to be empathetic. You wouldn’t want someone writing an account of your life without getting to know you very well first, understanding the depth of the life you’ve lived, attempting to walk in your shoes and comprehending how you felt during key moments.

The same applies when writing about someone or a group of people whose life or lives you have not lived.

It’s not about getting the facts right (or certainly, what you believe to be the facts). It’s about scratching deep beneath the surface and understanding the things that links us as beings on this planet – the feelings and emotions that make us each individuals, the way we are affected by being de facto members of any one group.

Understanding that this world is diverse and believing that this makes the world a better place is simply not enough to include characters whose experiences are different from yours.

Being willing to empathize with others is the first step.

 Again, we’ll talk more in Amsterdam.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton
was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited
submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published
magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.