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From Phyllida's Desk

I Am My Own Fairy Godmother: From POD To Published--A Cinderella Story

Part 1. Getting to the Ball.

Whenever I tell my story, I’m inevitably compared to Cinderella. I even make the comparison myself in the dedication of my first book.

No, I didn’t lose a glass slipper at a ball and end up married to Prince Charming. I did something far more extraordinary: I self-published a first novel (subsidy published, print-on-demand), then got an offer from a real publisher—HarperCollins, no less.

So what? Happens all the time. Someone taps into the zeitgeist, thinks up the new Harry Potter or whatever feel-good formula will replace The Secret, sells a gazillion copies… Whoa! No, that’s what so amazing. My POD didn’t sell. I have no indulgent family members to buy multiple copies, no car to sell copies out of the back of, and no marketing savvy. The zeitgeist and I rarely occupy the same universe, and I doubt I’d recognize it if I spent my life tweeting MyFacebook off.

Plus I wrote something that is not only out of the mainstream, it antagonizes whole segments of the market: a “bisexual” m/m/f romance novel. I took the Regency romance, a lighthearted comedy of manners set in the years between 1812 and 1820, inaugurated by the matchless Georgette Heyer in the 1930s and 40s and updated by modern writers like Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh and Laura Kinsale, sexed it up, and “queered” it by making the hero bisexual and giving him a happily-ever-after with a wife and a boyfriend.

This is not the kind of book that makes it to the big leagues, any more than princes marry kitchen wenches. (Well, times have changed in some respects, but that’s tomorrow’s bedtime story.) The fact remains that I did write Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, tried to get a publisher or an agent for six months, gave up, and subsidy-published it POD. A year and a half later, PBP was picked up by HC and released as a trade paperback. It’s on the syllabus of at least one graduate seminar, and I was a panelist at a first-of-its-kind conference on romance fiction at Princeton University (“Love As the Practice of Freedom? Romance Fiction and American Culture,” April 23-24, 2009).

Now my second book is about to hit the stores, also from Harper Paperbacks: Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet and Their Forbidden Lovers. And yes, it has an m/m/f storyline, or in this case, slightly m/m/f/f. No wonder people think I’m living a fairy tale, and want to know how I pulled it off. Fairy godmother?

The short answer: luck, blogs—and an editor who likes comedy.

POD “self-publishing” is hot these days. The conventional wisdom, that a writer must hold out for real publication, and that to succumb to the allure of the “vanity” press ruins a budding reputation forever, is being questioned by more and more frustrated authors with polished manuscripts they can’t sell. Surely it makes more sense to put your work out where it can be seen than to lock it away in a drawer or on your hard drive.

But as more writers turn their manuscripts into PODs and serialize them on websites, it can feel as if the guests at today’s ball are all Cinderellas, or members of her entourage, each with an alternative version of the classic story to tell. Stepsisters, father and stepmother, Prince Charming—even the rat-turned-coachman—have their own perspective on what once seemed to be a straightforward narrative.

So how does today’s self-published Cinderella stand out from the crowd and find her prince—or her readers?

In my case the honest answer is: I don't know. PBP went from POD to published, not because I wrote a bestseller, or even because I wrote a romance with mass appeal, but because a young editor willing to take a chance on an unknown author liked the book for its comedy and writing style. Although the POD PBP received some terrific publicity from two leading romance blogs, the Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels and Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance B(u)y The Book, it was the humor that appealed to my soon-to-be editor, and the HC edition was sold as fiction, not romance.

One thing I do know: This happy ending could not have happened if I'd stayed at home, sitting by the hearth, hiding my manuscript like a single glass slipper and waiting for my fairy godmother to give me a makeover. I went to the ball as myself, and somehow my Prince Charming saw his princess in the unembellished Cinderella. Self-publishing has given all of us Cinderellas a way to get to the ball on our own if we're willing to take it. But like the original heroine, we still need a bit of magic, or simple good luck, if our editor/prince is going to recognize the writer/princess without the enchanted finery of an agent's backing.

Part 2. Happily Ever After? Genre or Literary?

In Part One, I talked about how the recent rise in POD (print-on-demand) DIY publishing had made it possible for today’s Cinderella authors to get to the ball on our own, without waiting for the fairy godmother of an agent or publisher. But once we’re there, how do we find our collective prince, our readers?

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, my m/m/f ménage story released by HarperCollins in 2008, was sold, and shelved, as general fiction, not as romance. Nevertheless, segments of the romance community embraced PBP for its originality, and I was invited to speak at a conference on romance fiction at Princeton University. When, in a delirium of excitement, I announced my news to a neighbor, her reaction was worthy of the meanest of stepsisters: How did it feel, she wanted to know, to be celebrated as a rising star in a field notorious for bad writing?

Wonderful! I said.

Her question, whatever its motivation, was based on an accepted “truth.” Fiction, in the standard view, is divided into High and Low, Literary and Genre. Literary has the prestige but, apart from a few famous exceptions, poor sales; genre fiction gets by quite happily on filthy lucre alone. Taken altogether, the genre with the worst reputation for quality has the highest sales: romance, in all its permutations—historical, contemporary, paranormal, Western, erotic and Regency—outsells all other categories.

At last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, a panel of esteemed if lesser-known literary authors led a bitter discussion. One spoke of still needing the economic security of a demanding academic career despite having published a number of critically acclaimed novels, some of which sold no more than 1500 copies. Low Sales for High Culture was damned as the culprit, and the F-bomb was dropped—quoting an agent—regarding the public library's free lending, which results in multiple nonpaying readers for every copy it buys. Nobody on the panel or in the audience agreed with or approved of the statement; the quotation was offered as evidence of the desperation of publishers in the face of diminishing sales.

One of my goals in writing PBP was to bridge what I saw as this artificial divide. I hoped to write within the form of the romance novel, while appealing to readers of many genres—or none. Not so long ago, fiction had a respectable middle, between the Literary High and the Genre Low, works of general fiction that, while not bestsellers, sold steadily over the years, providing a reliable income for their authors and publishers—the midlist.

Nowadays book marketing is all about finding the right niche. If a work isn't “literary” it must fit into a recognizable category. Bisexual romance? Target the LGBT media. Chick lit? Women’s magazines. There’s no point in trying to sell a Jane Austen sequel to James Patterson fans, after all. Writers now do much of their own publicity online, banding together by subgenre in blogging communities devoted to “cross-promotion.”

But so far, I haven’t found a good fit for my mix of comedy, pastiche and m/m/f love. I suspect my niche, if there is one, consists of a slice of every niche out there. My readers come from every category and subcategory I can think of, and my greatest asset, what got me noticed in the first place, is my uniqueness.

In most versions of Cinderella, the heroine wins her prince not because of her good housekeeping, but because of her beauty and innate nobility, symbolized by her small feet. She prevails because of who she is (a princess displaced or wronged), not for what she does (kitchen chores). To quote from Wikipedia: “The word ‘cinderella’ has, by analogy, come to mean one whose attributes are unrecognised, or one who unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect.” This is the aspect of my Cinderella story that has thrilled me more than anything: that sense of being recognized for my intrinsic good qualities—my writing—beneath the ash-covered rags of the POD, rather than for any aptitude at the drudgery of marketing and promotion.

The real revolution brought about by the rise of POD “self-publishing” may be a redefinition of success. A writer like me, with no agent, no MFA and no connections to the literary establishment, could not have been published at all in the recent past. Now I’m in print, on bookstore shelves, however briefly, but with a below-minimum advance and little or no in-house publicity. In today’s world of PODs and e-books, if we’re all potential Cinderellas, we’re also somebody’s stepsisters, and many of us are only too happy to settle for Prince Charming’s younger brother, or his valet. For me, though, it's more of a love match.

Would I like to have a bestseller and go on a book tour? You bet! But to get that, I might have had to write something very different than a bisexual ménage romance, and a lot more popular, even assuming I could; something that didn’t reflect my own truth, however awkward or peculiar—and what’s the point of that?

By taking the chance of self-publishing, I found an editor who was willing to take a chance on me. My Prince Charming may be more of a Mr. Right. He’s not rich, but he appreciates me for who I am, and he encourages me to write exactly what I want, no compromises. Genre fiction or literary, or something in between? Who cares? I’m living, and writing, happily ever after.

My new book, Pride/Prejudice, is a 21st century reinterpretation of the classic novel that expands it with significant queer themes. (Pretty radical stuff!) It was published by HarperCollins on January 26, 2010, the 197th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

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