Ahead of the launch of my novel, Grave of Hummingbirds, on January 1st, 2016, the book peeps out on December 1st, 2015, to participate in Amazon’s Kindle First program. I feel much the same as I imagine Grave does: honored and scared.
What’s Kindle First, you might ask. (I didn’t know either.) Six novels are chosen from Amazon’s traditional imprints to head out a month prior to their release, on offer for free to Amazon Prime members, or at reduced cost to those who sign up for the Kindle First newsletter. It’s a muscular marketing drive that will expose Grave to readers in the US, UK, and Australia, and will inevitably yield the yearned for, and dreaded, reviews. In my mind, it’s a variation on the ARC process (advanced reader copies, which are sent out prior to a book’s release to gather feedback and endorsements). A number of novels are submitted to Kindle First by editors, and four to six are chosen out of I can’t even guess how many, so that’s what the glazed look in my eyes is about – a dazed sense of wonder and awe that Grave is one of them. When you’ve sucked on noodles of rejection and slurped steady buckets of not quite getting there, sitting at the equivalent of a Hogwarts feast has me jittery as the little bird that hovers over and through my novel.
But honestly, with the benefit of hindsight, every single rejection I got essentially pushed me, step after excruciating step, toward this moment of bated breath celebration. Every single nibble that ended in a ‘no’ was how I got to this point. If you’d said that to me a year ago, I’d have bludgeoned your sorry, cliche spouting ass with some choice expletives; now I bow my head in humble acknowledgement that some incredibly wise English people made those cliches up in the first place. And another thing. If I’d quit – during those times when I realized how odd and foreign my voice was in my new setting, America; when I felt undeserving and marginal and isolated; when I realized just how tough this journey was going to be – I would never have known what it felt like to have my own teeth grinding, eye rolling, war cry raging stubbornness finally pay off. There’s a reason I’ve always loved to watch the All Blacks do the haka (no offense to my ever beloved Springboks); I figured if I could stomp my feet and slap my forearms at the glowering mountain (aka publishing today), I could maybe…um…get published.
It’s been a long, fraught journey, and Grave has changed over time. It bears only core resemblance to the original 85K novel it once was when submitted as my MFA thesis at San Francisco State University. But my soul is in this book, flawed, strange, and edgy, and maybe that had something to do with my tenacity. There were signs, too. On more than one occasion, when I bounced in the dirt of rock bottom, actual, real hummingbirds showed up. A single bird once played with my hair.
So here we are, Grave and I, in the hands of Little A, Amazon’s literary fiction imprint headed up by Carmen Johnson. Working with Carmen has been a revelation, because she’s hugely smart, perceptive, and engaging. We had to move quickly to get the book out in time for a January launch, and she was always calm and accessible, always gracious. When the solitary nature of the creative process becomes collaborative, that evolution warrants both expansion and destruction, a delicate and sometimes brutal balancing act. I was afraid, very afraid…but in a heartbeat, gratitude replaced fear. I’ve worked with a stellar team over the past few months: copy editors and proof readers, members of the art and marketing departments, and publicists, and I’m just plain awed by how miraculous that has felt.
Grave came to Little A by taking an unexpected turn out of Kindle Scout, a program Amazon started to source titles and engage readers in selecting books that would go on to be published by Kindle Press. Crowd sourcing has become a popular means for publishers to gauge a book’s viability before contracts are signed and advances paid out (Macmillan Publishing and HarperCollins have Swoon Reads and Avon, respectively). Once Grave was selected for publication, the novel went through a copy edit, after which I didn’t hear from the team at Kindle Scout for a while. It got to the point where I thought they’d changed their minds, or the novel had drifted into an abyss. (That was me, jumping to the worst possible conclusion.) I sent off a ‘remember me?’ email, and got a call immediately to say that the novel was being considered in New York by Little A. A conference call followed with four people who have played a significant role in the early life of my novel.
To those of you who voted for the ms in the Kindle Scout campaign, you’ll receive your free copies as Kindle First unfolds in December. Thank you for giving me a leg up; you were and remain companions on this journey. I don’t know where it leads from here. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’, and I catch myself conjuring scenarios both stunning and awful. There’s no predicting anything in publishing, and the journey is different for each of us. I try to avoid getting caught up in the misgivings of stage fright and negative reviews. I’m cautiously side stepping the controversies surrounding Amazon, the extreme opinions that so many people seem to have of this giant, and the conflicts with other publishing houses and book stores. Little A, and Amazon, have been good to me, and my choice is to focus on the people I’ve had the great good fortune to work with.
We’ll travel this road, my book and I, and hope to take you with us.
JENNIFER SKUTELSKY was born in South Africa and has settled in the United States, where she lives with her daughter and three immigrant pets in San Francisco. Her first book, Breathing through Buttonholes: The Story of Madeleine Heitner, is listed at the Yad Vashem Library, while her memoir, Tin Can Shrapnel, was an Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist. Grave of Hummingbirds, her MFA thesis at San Francisco State University, won The Clark Gross Award in the Novel. Both a softie and a warrior, Jennifer is intrigued by the distortions of love, power, transgression, and redemption. With roots in ballet and visual art, everything she does now revolves around books.