"Celebrating Excellence in Independent Publishing"
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“Like Riding a Roller Coaster:” How an IPPY Award-Winning Author Found Her Literary Path
An IPPY Award Winner ProfileJoan Schweighardt is the author of Gudrun’s Tapestry, the historical thriller that won a 2004 Independent Publisher Book Award Finalist medal in Historical Fiction. The book, published in 2003 by Beagle Bay Books, describes a lone woman’s quest to stop Attila the Hun’s annihilation of her people. Loosely based on the medieval Germanic saga, “The Nibelungenlied" -– also the source of a Wagnerian opera –- Gudrun’s Tapestry is pretty heady stuff, especially for someone whose parents were poor, uneducated and did not have books in the house.
Here, in her own words, is her story:
I might have easily grown up without falling in love with books at all, and I sure do understand how it happens to a lot of kids. We had a dictionary, but it was kept on the same shelf in the closest where my father kept his condoms, so no one ever thought to get it. I had the good fortune, however, to be out with my friend Amy one lovely summer night when a guy in a blue convertible ran out of gas on the road on which we were walking. We escorted him to a gas station, and gave him all the loose change we had (he was also out of money). Before he sped away, he reached into the back of the car and pulled out Bertrand Russell's A History Of Western Philosophy. He looked from Amy to me and back again, but something must have told him that I needed the book more than Amy did because he shoved it at me -— and I have had it ever since.
I tried to read some chapters over the next few weeks, but of course Russell's summaries of the various philosophers' beliefs were too complex for a kid who had not yet developed a relationship with the written word. But I knew enough to recognize that something wonderful and magical had happened. As the title indicated, the book contained knowledge, and the book was mine, and so it didn't matter how much time passed before I was ready to read it.
That was the beginning, and it got me using my allowance to buy books of poetry and everything I could find by Edgar Allan Poe. And at some point, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
I had some poems and short stories published as a young adult, but it was not until I was in my late 30s that I found the time to write my first novel, Island. It was because I was not working but staying home with my youngest child that I could justify taking the time to write an entire novel. Since I knew I would find myself back at work as soon as my son started kindergarten, I wrote every chance I got. Island was published by the Permanent Press in 1992, and they also published my next two novels, Homebodies and Virtual Silence over the next few years.
Gudrun’s Tapestry had a very different evolution. I had read and studied the POETIC EDDAS in graduate school. The EDDAS are Germanic ‘lays’ (or songs) that probably got their start about 400 AD but remained an oral tradition for another eight or nine hundred years. In the interim, they were carried by the Vikings to Iceland and recorded there.
Wagner's operas deal with some of the same materials, but his source was the anonymously-written epic poem "The Nibelungenlied," which also began as an oral tradition and remained so for centuries, until it was recorded sometime around 1200 AD in what is today Austria. While the EDDAS make an earnest but unsuccessful attempt to connect their heroes and heroines to Attila the Hun, ‘The Nibelungenlied’ tells the story of Attila's destruction of a Burgundian kingdom. Even though both versions are muddied up with all the tales that have cleaved to them over time, enough of the names and events they talk about appear in history books to confirm that, like the ILIAD, there was indeed a historical foundation.
When I started Gudrun’s Tapestry, I was so mesmerized by the legendary material, which is full of romance and deception and jealously and betrayal and deeds of valor -— that I didn't even mind laboring over history books to look for the connections I needed to wring out a novel. And the most fun part of all was when the connections could not be found and I was faced with the challenge of making them up. When I was done, I felt I had been mostly true to both the legends and the historical material. But had I written a good book?
Probably not. I'd written it chronologically, with the early chapters relying on the legendary material and the latter on the historical. So of course the first part read like romantic fantasy and the second part like a history book. I sent it out to some publishers, and I got some great feedback and some suggestions for changes. But I didn't have much time to play around with it because by then I was on my way back to work.
Ultimately I found myself working for a PR company, creating text for a variety of clients. The work was fun, and while I had no real time to write fiction, at least I was writing. But I did miss working on books, and somehow I got it in my head that if I had a small publishing company, I could marry my love for books with my need to make money. But as I had less time than ever (my ex and I had split up somewhere along the line and so I was a very busy single parent), no money, and no knowledge of publishing except from the perspective of being a writer, my logical side told my impulsive side, NO! In the meantime, when I could snatch a few hours, I returned to Gudrun’s Tapestry, slowly finding a solution for the telling of the story that would render it more balanced.
Then my ex-husband and I sold the house we had lived in and all of a sudden I found myself with a bit of money. Forgetting momentarily that I still didn't have the other two ingredients (time and knowledge) I called up Julie Mars, who I had gotten to know around this time, and told her I wanted to publish her novel, The Secret Keepers. She had been shopping it through an agent for awhile and it had gotten wonderful rejections. Why it didn't sell back then is still a mystery to me. By the time it dawned on me that I was ill-equipped to publish it, I had already made the commitment. So I was forced to work twice as hard to ensure that I didn't make any mistakes. The result was a decent number of sales and a heck of a lot of great reviews.
That was back in 2000 and it has been a rocky four years since. Publishing, for me, feels like a ride on a roller coaster. It's both thrilling and terrifying. For quite some time I had to do almost full-time freelance work to feed myself, my kids and my publishing habit. (In fact I still do freelance, but only for select clients.) My first distributor wasn't fit to distribute telephone books (though I think he did that on the side). My second distributor went bankrupt owing me (and several other client publishers) quite a lot of money. But somehow, over time, I became addicted to publishing, and while I keep saying to myself, “One more blow and I'm out of here,” I'm still flying along in my little cart, half laughing, half screaming and hanging on for dear life.
I was in the middle of this publishing frenzy when a friend of mine called to say she'd seen an Attila the Hun TV movie, and that the TV Attila was a hunk with a rather charismatic personality who made women swoon. I hadn't see the movie myself, but it upset me that Attila would be portrayed as a desirable guy when he was a very bad man -— and frankly, not very good-looking either. I thought about this discrepancy for a few days, and then I got Gudrun’s Tapestry back out of the closet, blew off the dust, and started looking for a publisher again.
Jacqueline Church Simonds at Beagle Bay Books agreed to take a look, and ultimately agreed to publish it. It was a much improved book by then, but Jacqueline's input made it even better. In addition to other smaller changes, she asked me to rewrite the whole book in first person. I didn't agree with her when I started out on this mission, but once I got into it, I saw that it was really working. Jacqueline released it in 2003. I was very nervous about how it would be received. Frankly, I don't read much historical fiction, and I didn't know how it was measure up. It was very gratifying when the reviews started coming in.
“Jacqueline contacted me about two months before the 2004 BEA to tell me that Gudrun’s Tapestry was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine book of the year awards, in the historical fiction category. Since IPPY didn't announce it finalists prior to BEA, we all more or less stayed focused on the ForeWord results. We were thrilled when we found out that Gudrun had won a silver award. No sooner had Jacqueline put together a press release announcing same when she learned that the book was a runner up in the IPPY as well.
Equipped with these awards, the book has taken on a new life. As anyone reading this can imagine, it's very difficult for a novel of any kind to distinguish itself, especially a historical novel. The awards give the book credibility. We've had several reviewers who passed on the chance to review it the first time around offer to review it now. We've also had some paperback reprint interest and even some film interest. Pardon me for saying so, but now that films like ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Troy’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ have confirmed that there is an intense interest in ancient world stories, isn't it time for one that has features a woman's point of view?
Perhaps the best thing is that receiving the awards has rejuvenated me as a writer. To date, I have not been much help to Jacqueline as far as book signings and interviews. Whenever she has suggested them, I've told her I'm too busy setting up gigs for my own authors. But the awards have made me realize I'm letting us both down, and so I'm going to begin some signing events -— if anyone will have me -— and I've even scheduled two TV interviews with producers I've come to know through my authors. And while I don't foresee having the time to write novels in the near future, and while I wouldn't want to give up GreyCore and my new venture Picture Trivia, I am finding myself with the desire to write. In fact, I've started something. And it feels good, so it doesn't really matter how much time passes before I'm ready to finish it.
* * * * *
From the publisher of Gudrun’s Tapestry, Jacqueline Church Simonds, President, Beagle Bay Books
In 2002, we got a query from Joan Schweighardt, who said she’d noticed a review of one of our books on the Historical Novels website, and would we like to look at her manuscript, Gudrun’s Tapestry, about a woman who decides to take on Attila the Hun —- by herself? I admit, I’m a sucker for a strong hook. "Sure," I wrote back, "send three chapters."
That turned into a request for the entire manuscript as soon as I had those 60-odd pages. I was in love, but knew it wouldn’t be an easy marketing job. Cross-over books, as this one is (both historical and something of a literary piece -- it reads like a literary Mists of Avalon) are a tough sell. But I was sure everyone would love it as much as I. Somewhere in the process, I discovered Joan was a publisher herself. Her company, GreyCore Press, at that time specialized in literary fiction.
We had a difficult time marketing the book, despite a nice blurb from the co-author of a New York Times best-seller (Diane L. Paxon, Priestess of Avalon). Pre-production reviews didn’t materialize. It may have been because the author is herself a publisher and we said as much in the author blurb. Maybe they thought it was self-published. As most publishers know, those reviews are key to getting the book into the library market. Despite an ARC release through B&T and BookSense, orders were slow.
We had better luck with post-production reviews, although those, too, were a bit few and far between. (See the reviews on our website.) So we changed our marketing strategy, began targeting reading groups, and sales picked up.
Winning an IPPY Award (a Finalist in the Historical/Military Fiction) and a ForeWord Magazine silver award re-energized our marketing strategy. We created a new press release: “LITERARY BRIDESMAID GETS A SPOT AT THE ALTAR -- TWICE!” and re-submitted the book to many review sources that skipped over us -- and received some glowing words. We are once again actively pushing the book into movie producers’ hands, not to mention seeking foreign and paperback rights. Joan is doing more to seek out direct public interaction -— and I think this will spur more activity across the board.
Keep in mind that no one will come running to your door, call you on the phone or e-mail you breathlessly to get your book once you've won an award. You have to tell the world you've won -- and why it matters to THEM. (Feature + Benefit = Sale.) In other words, you have to have a marketing plan. It always seems to come back to that, doesn't it?
But first you have to win. And to do that, you have to take the chance and put down your money. I am on several publisher discussion lists, and frequently people ask, “Is it worth submitting one’s book to award contests?” My answer: “Oh, absolutely!”