Zoe Zolbrod on publishing with a small press

Most of the authors I interview on this blog write nonfiction, either memoir or travel writing or a combination of both, travel memoir. But today we’ve got a guest who has used her travel experience to inform a different type of writing: fiction.

Author Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod‘s first novel, Currency, which is set in Thailand, was released this month. I’ve invited Zoe here not only to celebrate the release, but also to shed light on publishing with a small press. You can buy her book at Amazon.

Zoe lives outside Chicago and works as a writer and editor of literature and language arts textbooks. She blogs at The Next Youth Hostel.

Thanks for joining us, Zoe! To begin, tell us about your book.

Currency is a literary thriller set mostly in Thailand, where an American woman backpacker and a cute Thai guy get involved with each other and an endangered animal smuggling ring. It was just released by Other Voices Books as the first in their Morgan Street International Series, which celebrates novels set outside the United States by writers from any nation.

Where does your travel experience fit in?

In the mid-90s, I backpacked solo around Southeast Asia for about six months. That experience was my inspiration. While writing, I went back to Thailand on a shorter trip to do research for the book.

Why did you decide to go the novel route instead of non-fiction?

My solo travel experience affected me profoundly, but I didn’t think it was unique enough to warrant a full-length treatment. I wanted to tell an exciting story — my characters get in a lot more trouble than I ever did or, hopefully, will — and have the freedom to use literary elements to explore certain themes.

Currency was released May 16.

What challenges did you face in publishing the book?

I faced the challenge of not giving up in the face of industry indifference. And I’m not even sure I succeeded! It took me a long time to find an agent. Then, after the initial flurry yielded only rejections, she quit working for me. (She did try to talk me into co-writing a book with another client of hers, but I passed.) Then I found another agent, who eventually did the same thing. I also tried a couple smaller presses on my own, but by then the many years of rejection had weakened my spirit. It was bittersweet to be told by one of the editors that this was the best novel he’d ever turned down, and I didn’t pursue the small press angle very hard.

Eventually, I gave up and put the manuscript under the stairs in the basement. It wasn’t until a couple years later that Gina Frangello, an editor at OV Books who had read Currency in a writer’s group years ago, asked me if I would consider submitting it for consideration as a Morgan Street International title. That was in 2008, and I had just had my second baby. When they accepted the book for a 2010 release, I was almost disbelieving. There were a few more small ups and downs after it had been accepted, and it took a while to trust it was really going to happen. But it happened! I now have boxes of books in my foyer.

For those of us who don’t know much about small presses (like me), can you explain the basics? Are the standards as high as traditional publishers? Do they edit your book? Do you need an agent or can you approach them directly? Do authors make money?

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Writers’ Roundup: April 2

I’ve noticed something about my weekly roundups: when I include a ton of links, readers don’t click through them all. So from now on, I’ll only include the best of the best, my absolute faves.

And my list is never just about writing. Maybe it’s time to change the name of this weekly feature?

Without further ado… Links!

  • Literary agent Jenny Bent writes about confidence in publishing. “There are a million and one ways that this business can make you feel like a loser,” she says. “Act like you believe in yourself until one day you’ll find out that you actually do.”
  • An excellent list from Marian Schembari, who specializes in social media for authors, on what people really notice about your blog. She says design and functionality and popularity matter. She’s so right.
  • Politics Daily brings us The Making of a Bestseller: Rebecca Skloot and a Great Obsession, about what this first-time author did to get The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on the bestseller list. “It took her 10 years, three publishing houses, four editors, one divorce, a freelance stint in New York, school loans and credit card debts..” the story reads. I just bought this book and plan to start it tonight!

Have a great weekend!

Writers’ Roundup: March 5

Happy Friday!

Some weekend reading for y’all:

  • At True/Slant, a great list of the Best Journalism of 2009. A few of Conor Friedersdorf’s categories: exceptional storytelling, short essays and travel.
  • Literary agent Rachelle Gardner explains why she doesn’t ask for memoirs about overcoming adversity: “Lots of people have a story similar to yours; only a few will be able to write it in such a way that it could become a bestselling memoir.” There’s also an interesting conversation in the comments of Rachelle’s post, Does the query system work?
  • For fun: Big Africa Cycle. This guy is biking through the continent. It’s so fun to read his posts and see his photos, partly because I’ve been to some of the places he has visited recently.

It’s almost spring! Enjoy your weekend.

Writers’ Roundup: February 5

I am so close to finishing* my manuscript that I’m giddy. Giddy! It helps that I love revising; turns out this is my favorite part of the process. Everything is right there on the page and all I have to do is make it better!

But. Enough of me being overly excited (especially since the hard part — getting this sucker published — hasn’t even begun). Links!

  • At The Murdock Editing Blog, advice about including enough but not too much backstory in memoir. “Trust the reader to find his or her own connections,” the editor writes.
  • Tips on writing the Competitive Analysis section of your book proposal, from literary agent Chip MacGregor. Thinking about the purpose of this section helps, he says.
  • A guest post at Guide to Literary Agents on tips for Author Platform and the Debut of your Book. Broken down by fiction and non-fiction, and for memoir I’d say you could do it all.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

*When I say finished, I mean as good as I can make it, ready to be sent out to agents. We all know that if I land an agent and publisher, I’ll probably face many more revisions.

Writers’ Roundup: January 29

I’m on a high, about to jump into my final round of revisions! But I’ll pause for a moment to compile some links for you from this week:

  • The paradox of memoir, Ami Spencer writes, is the more personal details you reveal, the more readers will relate.

Be sure to check back here Monday, when author Dani Shapiro will join us as guest. I’m pretty excited about that.

Writers’ Roundup

I was pretty annoyed at Amtrak this week for canceling my train home from New York City. But while I waited a few hours for the next available train to Albany, I wrote some quality pages. It amazes me that I can produce some of my best copy while kids scream behind me and a train station employee mops an unidentifiable liquid off the floor in the isle next to my seat. I worked so well in that noisy train station that I may start seeking out loud places to write during the week.

But you’re here for links! So I bring you:

  • At Rachelle Gardner’s blog, guest blogger Margot Starbuck offers A Few Do’s & Don’ts of Writing Memoir. I particularly like her reminders about staying focused on a particular theme (which differs, she says, from your favorite experiences) and about coming across as “real,” so readers can identify with you.

Enjoy your weekend!

Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt

An author wrote to me last week with this advice: “There’s no substitute for finding your voice and writing brilliantly.”

While he seemed to think my travel memoir had potential, he told me, very frankly, that I was spending too much energy figuring out the publishing industry when I should be focusing on writing a fabulous book.

This author, who I connected with online (another reason writers should use Twitter), gave me permission to post snippets of his advice here, but I’m going to leave him anonymous because, well, since this isn’t a newspaper story, I can. He wrote:

I’ve become dismayed by the presence of the advice industry on Twitter and the Tweeters’ corresponding blogs. I find that much of it presents the whole business as if there’s some secret formula or key that will unlock the world of publishing success. And it preys on the dreams and aspirations of unpublished writers, most of whom will never be published. I don’t think that advice is helpful, and in most cases it is harmful. In your case, write a compelling book with an original voice and you will find an agent and get it published.


There’s no great mystery to publishing.

But I need to learn about the industry to get my book published, I argued. I need to know how to best present my manuscript, through a query letter, a proposal, whatever, to convince an agent to represent me. His response?

Agents almost never find clients at conferences or from the slush pile of submissions. No guidelines or tips on writing cover letters are going to help you get a good agent… Agents get clients usually by seeking them out. They see an article somewhere written by a young promising writer and they track the writer down. Or they get a referral from an editor, current client, or writer they respect. Most good agents — and we’re talking about a handful of agencies here — do not find clients in the query pile. It happens, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Take it or leave it — This is only one guy’s opinion (I warned you this would be a kick in the butt). He wasn’t ruthless enough to leave me hanging hopeless. He offered to look at my manuscript when it’s complete, and if he likes it, pass it along to his agent, just like an established author did for him years ago. He continued:

Only two things matter. Have something to say. Say it with a clear and distinct voice. Doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, fiction or nonfiction. This isn’t easy, of course. You’re writing about experiences in five or six different countries, but there needs to be one clear idea that drives your narrative. That central idea can be you, or it can be an idea about development or health or something Africa-related. But that’s the key. You need to be able to tell me succinctly what your book is about.

Harsh? Yes. Just what I need right now to keep me motivated? You bet.

Writers’ Roundup

Thanks to everyone who offered advice about getting over the fight with my manuscript. After a weekend break, I forced myself to get back at it, and completed drafts of chapters nine, ten and eleven! Largely because of that progress, I’m in back in love with the story. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Helpful links from this week:

  • What’s a book club hustler? An author who markets her work to book clubs by showing up in person. Sounds fun, albeit a lot of work. On that same note, author Galen Kindley offers practical advice about how to find book clubs open to author visits and prepare for the meetings.
  • Penelope Trunk on staying disciplined. More reasons why it’s important to stay focused and on track with my writing every day.
  • While documenting her path to publication, writer Jody Hedlund explains the slew of committees her book has to go through before (hopefully) publisher acceptance.
  • Lastly, a post from author Janice Hardy about why you should kill your prologue. This spoke to me because I killed my prologue months ago, after realizing that I fell into her category #3, thinking that it had more oomph to grab readers than the first chapter. But that was taking the easy way out. As she writes, instead “make your first chapter sing.”

Now put that pen to paper this weekend!

Writers’ Roundup

Little by little, my travel memoir is coming together. I’ve got a big (self-imposed) deadline coming up: I’m trying to finish the first 2/3 of the book — that’s 10 chapters — by Aug. 1.

As I connect with more writers of memoir on Twitter, I’m thinking of organizing a #memoirchat. Let me know if you’re interested.

A few links I found helpful this week:

  • Writer Ami Spencer asks, Are your writing goals SMART? Part I and Part II.
  • The author of First Draft Secrets suggests using placeholders to  mark gaps you’ll return to in later revisions. This hit a chord with me — I’m queen of the placeholder! When I can’t think of the right word or don’t feel up to describing a place, I write BLAH BLAH BLAH and come back to it later. Yup, literally, I write BLAH BLAH BLAH. It’s all over my first drafts. It sounds like this might actually be normal!

Happy Fourth of July weekend!

Rachel Held Evans on the challenges of memoir

I’ll try anything to convince myself that even though I’m writing alone in my office, I’m not really alone. That’s why I love connecting with other writers online, particularly those who are working on memoirs.

“Meeting” Rachel Held Evans, whose spiritual memoir will be released in early 2010, was particularly exciting because like me, she has a journalism background. Evolving in Monkey Town is her first book, and since she’s several steps ahead of me in the writing and publishing process, I figured I could learn a thing or two from her. And so could you.

Rachel lives in Dayton, Tennessee. She’s represented by literary agent Rachelle Gardner — Evans recently offered tips to first-time authors on her agent’s blog — and her book is being published by Zondervan, which specializes in Christian literature.

Let’s have a round of applause for Rachel Held Evans! (Roar from the audience.) Please, I know you’re excited, but let’s hold questions until the end.

Alexis: Tell us a bit about your book, Evolving in Monkey Town.

Rachel: I live in what is arguably the most religious town in the country – Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.  Inspired by this environment, I wrote a spiritual memoir about growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture and seriously questioning my faith as a young adult. My story is intended to be an encouragement for other young adults who have doubts about Christianity or who are frustrated with current expressions of evangelicalism.  Currently in the editing stages, it will be published by Zondervan.

How did you go about finding an agent and publisher?

I’d been piddling around with the book for a couple of years when I finally decided to put together a proposal. (Tip #1: For nonfiction, I recommend writing and pitching a proposal BEFORE completing the book.) I bought a couple of books on how to write a non-fiction book proposal, followed those guidelines, and put one together. (Tip #2: Even for creative non-fiction, a proposal is helpful because it forces you to outline and summarize the book and to consider how your book fits into the market.)

Once I had a proposal, I met with an author acquaintance of mine, who liked it and recommended me to his agent. (Tip #3: You gotta be willing to take advantage of ANY connections you might have in order to break into this very competitive business.) My friend’s agent was not interested, but passed it on to his associate – Rachelle Gardner – who was interested. (Tip #4: Rejections are a part of the process; get used to it.)

Rachelle pitched my proposal to several publishers, and after a few painful rejections, I got a “yes” from Zondervan. (Tip #5: Try to get an agent.) I signed a contract with Zondervan in September of 2008 with a deadline to send in the first draft on April 1, 2009. (Tip #6: Send your stuff in on time; editors will love you for it.) Finished the first draft by deadline and am now working with editor to polish it up. We should see the book on shelves within a few months. (Tip #7: The whole process takes a really, really, really long time, especially for the first book; prepare for a long ride.)

As a first-time author, can you share with us something you learned through this process that you wish you had known beforehand?

This is going to sound cheesy, but I genuinely had no idea how rewarding the process would be. If anything, I wish I had been willing to put myself out there sooner. Every day I am amazed that someone is paying me to do what I love.

What writing and publishing challenges are unique to memoir? How did you overcome them?

Memoirs are strange little creatures. While they deal with true facts, the good ones always include the elements of fiction – carefully constructed plots, strong character development, and vivid imagery. They can be a challenge to write because most people are just not that interested in your story unless 1) you are famous or 2) your readers feel they can relate. So the most important thing to keep in mind while writing a memoir is your intended audience. You have to constantly ask yourself – “Why would my readers care? How can they feel connected to this story? What is the universal truth behind this experience?”