Today’s Q&A is with YA novelist Kiera Cass. I received an excellent tip from 4KidLit that Kiera had scored a 3-book deal with HarperTeen after self-publishing her first YA novel, The Siren, with iUniverse. Read on to find out more.
I love that your bio on your homepage says, “History is the storyteller’s major. Don’t be tricked into English.” I majored in creative writing during college and while I don’t necessarily regret it, there are so many other interesting things to study as a writer.
But either way, it seems you knew you were a writer by the time you left college. Did you write fiction in college? Did you practice it or study it formally? Have any mentors along the way?
I guess no, no, and no. My original major was musical theatre, and choir was my favorite thing in high school. I was a huge nerd for performing, though I have to admit, I don’t think I was very good.
When I went into musical theatre, and I was graded on the way I played piano and had a requisite number of pieces to sing and all these technical things drilled into me over and over, it kind of sucked the fun out of it. I’m kind of glad I didn’t study creative writing when I was younger. I think it would have ruined it for me.
Now that I’m at a place where I’m sharing my writing with people besides my mom, I’m very tempted to take a creative writing class. My agent Elana and I had to go back and edit The Selection a few times before sending it out because I just tell stories as they come to me. I don’t think about arcs or themes or things like that. I’m working hard to make my stories the best they can be, and I think studying the craft is important. I’m not sure what that means for me exactly, but I’m learning.
History just turned out to be wonderful because all it is is reading true life stories. It also made me a pretty good researcher, which is handy. I think there’s something to be said for majoring in something that will make you money and minoring in something you love.
You self-published your novel The Siren with iUniverse in July 2009—after trying unsuccessfully to get about 70 agents to represent it. Once the book was released, you’ve said that you worked like mad to market it.
Today, all signs point to a very passionate fan base for your work. (For example, readers created Facebook Flair in honor of your book.) What really seemed to work in spreading word about your book—and what didn’t?
First, I have to say I’m freakishly in love with my fans. They’ve done amazing things, from sending stuff for my son when he was born to making me Rob Pattinson magnets for my fridge. Love them!
I played around with a lot of ideas with promoting The Siren, trying to use what I had (a YouTube channel, an enthusiastic but small fan base) to make up for what I didn’t (spots in an actual bookstore, major marketing help).
My fans made videos and Facebook flair for various contests, but the thing that seemed to work the best was simply them. I get a lot of “so-and-so is a friend of so-and-so and they told me I had to read your book, and I love it and now my mom is reading it too!”
I know that because you can’t just run over to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy of The Siren that it means one book is usually passed from friend to friend, so maybe my sales aren’t stellar. But you know what? Those people tend to stick around. They’re my Facebook friends, YouTube subscribers, and Twitter followers. I’m available, I keep things up to date, and when The Selection comes out, I think they’ll be just as supportive, if not more.
I would say the thing that ended up mattering the least were the reviews on Amazon or B&N.com. I asked people to post one if they read it, and I’m glad they’re there, but I can’t say it’s impacted sales.
The thing that was probably the hardest (work wise) but the best was going through an index of YA book blogs I found and getting reviews there. There weren’t many willing to read The Siren in PDF form (which was all I could do for them at the time), but those who did were awesome, had great things to say, and I know people bought it and read it because of those bloggers. I have those reviews saved, and I’d do darn near anything for those people.
The Siren has been voted by one blog as the #1 Underappreciated YA Novel. Are you willing to share your sales figures for The Siren? And, if so, share any information you have about where most of your sales came from?
I don’t feel comfortable giving out numbers. What feels like a huge accomplishment to me would probably look kind of pathetic next to a traditionally published novel. I will share that the day The Siren was released, I asked everyone I knew to go buy it on Amazon, which bumped the sales rank and got it a lot of attention. I think that’s a must for anyone who chooses to self-publish. I was contacted by two agents after that, and though it didn’t work out, it opened doors.
For your second novel, The Selection, you were able to get 2 agents to ask to represent it. You’ve chalked this up to timing. Aside from this, do you think The Selection is a better book? (Did you get better at it the second time around?) Or do you think it’s more commercially viable than The Siren?
The Selection is different, that’s for sure. The first four chapters of The Siren are things I feel must be a part of the book. Kahlen spends a whole lot of time waiting for things to happen, and I wanted people to wait with her, to feel it. But I know that if an agent asks for the first three chapters … they’re wondering where the guy is and how this whole thing’s going to work out, and I get why that was probably not interesting for them. Still wouldn’t change it.
But, yes, The Selection is better. I took more time to plan it out and write it, whereas The Siren was me writing a chapter and then asking “Well, what happens next?”
I feel like the people in The Selection are a bit more real, and I
think it is more commercial. It’s the kind of book that will make you want to design your own T-shirts. I’ve imagined the themed book release parties that I genuinely hope to have someday, and my best friend is already dreaming up parodies. I think it’ll be a fun book to read, and I really hope the fandom enjoys it.
When you queried agents, did you mention your self-published book, and if so, how did you reference it in the query?
I did mention it. I think you have to. Google exists, people. Elana could have looked me up anytime and found out about it, but why start what I hope will be a long and awesome relationship off dishonestly?
When I was telling her about myself, I simply told her that I published a book independently, gave her some stats, and told her that people had enjoyed it. I also mentioned my YouTube channel.
You’ll have to ask Elana, but I think that was a pretty odd query. I know some agents appreciate the effort, but I don’t think very many will be impressed with a self-published book being a part of your body of work. Still, she didn’t hold it against me. I do think she appreciated that I had a learning experience I could use for the future.
Unless you’ve sold some ridiculous number of a self-published book, I’d treat it the same way you’d treat having no experience at all: mention it and move on.
Elana Roth is now your agent, and she got you a multi-book deal with HarperTeen. Had you met Elana before? Was your query for The Selection your first contact with her?
Yes, Elana is many different kinds of awesome, and she landed me a three-book deal with HarperTeen, which will be The Selection Trilogy. My query was my first contact with her, and I’ve already told you it was kind of weird. You’re suddenly making me wonder why she gave me the time of day! Elana did a great blog post about the time line from my query to my offer, something I would like to see if I were still in the querying process.
You’ve mentioned that, this time around with a traditional publisher, you get to focus on what your role is: storytelling. What marketing/promotion do you expect to do in the future? (Though, it must be pointed out, you’re consistently active online through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!)
Well, we’ve got about two years before The Selection comes out, so I’m hoping to keep people entertained and with me in the meantime. YouTube and Twitter sure do make it easy to talk to the readers, so I’ll be hanging out there a lot.
The thing I’m most looking forward to is touring. I live in rural Virginia, so unless my fans come to Virginia Tech or Radford University, the likelihood of running us into each other is slim. I can’t wait to see them in real life. You know, not just their avatar and screen name. Other than that, I plan to keep brainstorming. The other ideas I had came to me at random, so I’m hoping there will be more.