Blue-collar Seth can’t escape his small Nebraska town. Wealthy Quinn has no choice but to leave. They keep their unlikely new romance a secret: it’s too early to make plans, too late not to care. But it’s 1989. As politics suddenly get personal, Seth and Quinn find themselves fighting bare-fisted for their beliefs—and each other—in the clear light of day.
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Agents clamor for it now, but realistic, historical young adult fiction was kryptonite to agents and editors from 2008-2013. The following captures my experience of peddling ’89 Walls 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.
Agents are human—not imbued with superpowers.
Here’s an amalgamated version of those five years’ worth of conversations with literary agents:
Bob the Agent: I’m looking for a fresh new voice telling a story I’ve never heard before!
Me: Here you go.
Bob: Great writing! But this is a political young adult novel. I can’t sell it.
Me: Really? Joan Bauer, David Levithan, Janet Tashjian, and Gary D. Schmidt did well with their political themes.
Bob: But teens don’t want to read any more political novels: they’re apolitical.
Me: You mean the millennials that are writing a new chapter of American civil rights history as they campaign for marriage equality?
Bob: Exactly. They’re reading Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars. I want the next one of those! Teens don’t care about 1989: it’s outdated.
Me: Some might call a 1989 setting “historical fiction.”
Bob: (hands over ears) La, la, la, I cannot hear you!
Me: The truth horrifies, I know. But the “Glee” generation views 40-somethings like you and me as “retro.” The incoming class of 2019 never experienced a time in which Russia posed a nuclear threat. To them, “Star Wars” is just a movie. My novel, ’89 Walls, is new material to the YA market.
Bob: You’re saying the days of my misspent youth qualify as historical fiction?
Me: Bob, it’s okay! The Eighties are back! Have you been to the movies lately? They’re showing “Anchorman 2,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “17 Again.” Americans watch “The Goldbergs” and “The Carrie Diaries” on TV. What better time to pitch a story set in the good old days of communicating in cursive?
Bob: Sure, but no one’s writing YA about the Eighties.
Me: Besides me, you mean? Eleanor and Park is a huge commercial success story. I think we have potential here to catch the wave of a nascent trend.
Bob: (Heavy sigh.) Ms. Pierson, young adults don’t want to read about misfits grappling with partisan politics and multiple sclerosis and apartheid and abortion. They want…
Me: Books about misfits dealing with domestic abuse, dropping acid, foster care, pedophiles, racism and bullying?
Me: Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor and Park), Chris Crutcher (Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes) and Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) rocked those stories, for sure.
Bob: My point is that politics and history per se are boring.
Me: Is it possible, Bob, that you’re underestimating the audience? Ellen Levine (In Trouble), Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts), and Gary D. Schmidt (The Wednesday Wars) all sold a lot of books. Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity was the best novel I read all year.
Bob: Fine. But no one’s specifically interested in the Eighties as an historical era.
Me: Historians and journalists are sure taking a hard look at 1989, particularly in the wake of Mandela’s death, Russia’s shenanigans in the Ukraine and America’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. I read an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “A History Lesson that Needs Relearning.” It opened with, “Suddenly the specter of the Cold War is back.” The market is primed—we just have to nudge it a little. Think of the fun crossover potential in the adult fiction market!
Bob: What do you think I am? A taste-maker?
Me: Uh…that is, actually, what you guys would have us writers believe. But I’ve spent the last few years seeking a home for realistic historical YA fiction during a recession, a Big Five blood bath, the rise of digital books, and the Stephenie Meyer phenomenon. I’ve seen—in real-time—why you’re risk-averse.
Bob: Right! Kids these days want to read Twilight!
Me: Dude, you’re missing my point. (And the Twilight ship has sailed. Publishers are literally posting “no more vampire novels” on their websites.)
Bob: Right! No more vampire novels. Publishers want another Harry Potter!
Me: They want another insanely successful book, yes. And thanks to J.K. Rowling, YA is still the book market’s fastest growing genre.
Bob: But your story is literary. Kids want to escape! No more downer novels!
Me: Uh, you mentioned that teens are reading The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent? (And isn’t dystopian the definition of “downer”)? Anyway, ’89 Walls isn’t a downer novel: it’s a love story with edgy, funny dialogue and a fun, steamy sex scene at the end.
Bob: I can’t sell sex to school libraries!
Me: You told me at a conference that we should write “the books that librarians love and kids hide from their parents.” As sex scenes go, this one is pretty wholesome. If kids want misogynist porn they’ll have to surf the Internet like everyone else.
Me: My point, Bob, is that the wind-down of the (last) Cold War is about the sudden absence of America’s most reliable enemy. It’s a perfect setting for a coming-of-age novel about rivals falling in love and having to figure out what they stand for instead of against.
Bob: Don’t tell me how you think your book should be marketed.
Me: I thought you guys wanted writers to build platforms and be savvy about marketing.
Bob: Right. I need to know you can develop an audience for your novel.
Me: But only you can figure out the marketing angle even though I have fifteen years of non-profit public affairs experience, including marketing and communications consulting?
Me: But you do want me to speak confidently in public, give interviews, and do readings once the book is published.
Bob: Now you’re getting it.
Me: I think so: pre-publication, I’m a guileless, sensitive artist with nothing on my mind but the glory of polishing my craft and offering pure entertainment to my readers.
Me: Then—when I get a contract—I metamorphose into a publicity and sales machine with my finger on the pulse of the Obama generation.
Bob: I’m so glad we had this little talk.
Having a bad literary agent is worse than not having one at all.
Okay, so my timing was terrible. As it turns out, so was the agent with whom I ended up signing. By the time I realized she was building her own career instead of mine, she’d already fired my manuscript off to three dozen editors in one email and seriously muddied the waters. In retrospect, it was like finding out that not only is your Prince Charming a pimp, but that he’s your pimp.
When all else fails, raise your expectations.
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.
I did learn through my terrible agent (before firing her) that editors liked the writing but didn’t think they could sell politics to teens. Attempts to find a new agent confirmed that ’89 Walls was damaged goods. I looked into small presses. But when I got an offer, I couldn’t bring myself to sign the contract. Why turn 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 I realized 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 found a mentoring press (Wise Ink Creative Publishing) to help me produce, distribute and market a book that could compete with Big 5 (4) titles.
Everyone feels like a fraud — it’s not just me (or you).
I figured out years ago that when you claim the title, “writer,” you are one. All you have to do is print yourself a business card. 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.
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Katie Pierson freelances for Twin Cities 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 B.A. in American History from the University of Pennsylvania (where she dabbled briefly in being a College Republican) and an M.A. in American History from the University of Minnesota. She lives with her family in a suburb of Minneapolis. You can reach her through her website, www.katiepierson.net.
Katie Pierson: Website