Sunday, December 30, 2007
I frequently get asked when my next Dallas/Fort Worth area signing will be, and for some reason, I just don't get to do very many. It's strange for such a huge metropolitan area, but in ten years I think I've done maybe half a dozen public events in the DFW metroplex. When the Plano Barnes and Noble found out I was scheduled to do a school visit on Tuesday, 1/29, they invited me to do an evening event the night before, and I was delighted to accept.
This will be the first public DFW event I've done in a long time, and I'm not sure when I'll get to come back, so if you live in the area, please come by! I will do a sneak peak reading from the fourth Percy Jackson book, The Battle of the Labyrinth. (The book will still not be available until May 6, but you'll get to hear a little bit in advance!) I'm looking forward to Q&A with the audience and a Greek mythology quiz game/Camp Half-Blood T-shirt giveaway. It should be a lot of fun.
My next public events probably won't be until May, when Battle of the Labyrinth is released. I don't have a full schedule yet, but as soon as I know where I'll be going, I'll post it on my web calendar here.
Have a safe and happy New Year, and I hope to see you Dallas-area demigods on Jan. 28! For more information, you can contact the store at (972) 881-7526.
Monday, December 24, 2007
It’s been an interesting week, watching how people have responded in the press and on the Internet to the announcement about Scholastic’s 39 Clues.
Overwhelmingly, the debate has been, “Is 39 Clues really the next Harry Potter?” To which, naturally, skeptical fans have said, “Oh, please.” It’s unfortunate the original New York Times article used that as its focus. I understand what the writer meant. Now that the Harry Potter series is over, speculation is high about what Scholastic will do to fill that sales gap. From a business point of view, everyone is wondering what Scholastic’s “next Harry Potter” will be. But we all know there is no such thing as a next Harry Potter. That sort of once-in-a-generation event is not something you can create or plan. In terms of content, there is simply no basis for comparison between 39 Clues and Potter. Apples and oranges. Nor do I think anyone at Scholastic seriously intended 39 Clues to be a “successor” series. When I was approached about 39 Clues, certainly no one at Scholastic ever voiced that idea. No one ever said, “This is our next Harry Potter.” What they did say is they wanted to create something completely new. They wanted to design a series of books that was integrated with other things kids are interested in – like games and cards – much more deeply than anything that had been done before. They wanted to create a multiplatform adventure that could be experienced in real time. That’s what excited me about the project. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying new approaches to get kids interested in reading.
The second big comment I heard was this: “You can’t engineer a good series! It has to happen naturally.” An understandable sentiment. We are all weary shoppers with a healthy sense of cynicism. The more heavily something is marketed, the more we tend to rebel against it. We figure if a product is really being hyped, it can’t be any good. That’s a natural reaction in the Age of Consumerism. My only hope is that people will judge the books based on the books, not on preconceptions or hype, positive or negative. I’m confident that young readers will enjoy the story, and really, as the writer, that’s all I care about. If it appeals to adults as well, that’s great. But make no mistake: I’m writing for kids. I’ve read too many “children’s books” that were geared toward adults who read children’s books, but that actual, real-life children couldn’t stand. I’m not interested in writing that sort of book.
Was 39 Clues created differently than the average novel? Sure. It was very much a team effort. Usually when I create a book, I’m on my own until late in the writing process, when I turn over the project to my family, and finally my editor for comments. 39 Clues was designed more like a television series or a film. The editorial staff had the genesis of the idea. They started brainstorming. They talked to artists and game designers and booksellers. They came to me, and together we fleshed out the general framework for the series. They had some ideas for the first book, but I was given pretty wide latitude about where I took it. The tone, the character development, the plot details – this was all left to me. I have to say, I did not feel restricted. If anything, I found it exhilarating to take the team’s idea and make it come to life. It was a new experience for me, but a positive one. Creating something in a group setting doesn’t necessarily make it bad. We’ve all seen excellent television writing, and we’ve all seen terrible television writing. It depends on the idea and how well it is developed. When you read 39 Clues, you can decide for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The comment that surprised me the most was one blogger’s reaction to my statement about getting reluctant readers involved in books. I said that some kids may always prefer playing games to reading, but if I could convince even some of them that reading can be another way to have an adventure, I’d feel like I’d done my job. The blogger apparently felt that this was an unworthy aspiration for a writer – that I should be aiming for something higher. The Great American Novel? The Nobel Prize? I’m not sure. To me, as a teacher and a writer, getting reluctant readers to enjoy reading is a pretty important goal, and it’s one I’m proud to pursue. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t do us much good to produce the Great American Novel if we continue to create generations of nonreaders. Too many kids view reading as something boring and irrelevant that they only do because the school system makes them. Reading should be a pleasurable activity, and there’s nothing wrong with making books that are fun to read – especially when you’re talking about books for kids.
That doesn’t mean “dumbing down” books. I don’t accept the proposition that accessible books can have no literary merit. I don’t accept that good books must be difficult books that no one without a literature degree can understand. My favorite literature has always been populist literature meant to be enjoyed by the masses – from Shakespeare to Dickens to Mark Twain. It was Twain who warned us, in the forward to Huckleberry Finn, not to overanalyze what we read, and simply enjoy the story for the story. His work was roundly panned by the critics of his day as being not “literary” enough. Dickens shrewdly serialized his novels to increase his readership and sales. Shakespeare wrote works “on spec” for wealthy patrons. No doubt they would all be accused of crass commercialism today, but I sure wish I could write as well as they did.
At any rate, it was a thrill to be involved in the 39 Clues. I can’t wait to see what happens when the series launches in the fall! I hope those who are leery of the idea will give the books a chance and decide for themselves. I hope those who are excited about the series will find that the adventures surpass their expectations! I know my sons, having read The Maze of Bones in manuscript, are very anxious to find out what happens in the subsequent books! As a family, we are already swept up with the adventures of the Cahill family. In the meantime, it’s back to the world of Percy Jackson for me. I’m deep into the manuscript for the fifth and final book, and having a fabulous time with it!
Happy holidays and happy reading!
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Saturday, December 22, 2007
The question took me aback. I had no idea how to answer, but I was struck by how drastically perception can differ from reality.
I’ve read about rock musicians who play free gigs for years in dingy bars – paying their dues -- before they get the one big break that attracts national attention. Suddenly, the artist is an ‘overnight success.’ No one has heard of him before, so even though he has been toiling for years, people just assume he appeared out of nowhere, a fully-formed rock star, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears . . . well, the tree doesn’t exist until we notice it. Thinking about my own ‘overnight success,’ I remembered one of the first book signings I ever did, ten years ago, when Big Red Tequila first came out. I was invited to Waldenbooks in a shopping mall in Concord, California. They set up a table at the front of the store. They allotted two hours. I sat there in my coat and tie and watched people pass by, steering clear of me like I was an insurance salesman. I gave directions to Sears. I explained several times that I wasn’t an employee at the bookstore and I didn’t know where the self-help section was. I signed a napkin for a couple of teenaged boys who thought the title “Big Red Tequila” sounded slightly naughty because it had to do with alcohol. I sold no books.
I remember the first book discussion group I did in Oakland. Two people showed up. And after that, a seemingly endless string of events for my mystery series – lots of empty chairs, apologetic booksellers, forced smiles. “Oh, it doesn’t matter if no one shows up!” I’d tell myself over and over. “It’s the signed stock and the publicity that counts!” Well . . . maybe. But I still felt like I was trying to fill a reservoir with an eye-dropper.
Most writers have stories like this. We dread the room full of empty chairs. I still have a deeply ingrained fear that no one will show up whenever I do an event. I am constantly amazed when I walk into a bookstore and there are actually people waiting for me.
When the Lightning Thief first came out, two years ago, I was a basket case. I had a feeling in my gut that this book was my big chance. And I also had a feeling that the big chance was slipping away. My family and I went out to the Bay Area to visit our old stomping ground, and I kept looking for signs that the Lightning Thief was making a big splash, getting some publicity, getting displayed prominently. No such luck. We stopped by several bookstores to sign stock. There was no stock. I did an event at one store (unfortunately, the day after the latest Harry Potter release) and the bleary-eyed bookseller’s only comment about Lightning Thief was, “Oh, it hasn’t gotten much coverage, has it?” I went back to the hotel room and curled into fetal position, thinking, “Well, that’s it. Nobody likes Percy Jackson.” My wife still teases me about that trip. She says, “If I could only go back in time and show you what was going to happen.” Still, at the time, I felt hopeless. It was another six months of constant touring and school visits before the Lightning Thief started gaining any traction at all. The Bluebonnet list from the Texas Library Association was the series’ first big break. Then it began showing up on other state lists, and word started getting around. Even after that, things were slow. I remember when Sea of Monsters came out, a year later, I was still having anxious conversations with my editor and agent, wondering what I could do to improve sales. Were we missing something? Was I wrong to think the series would connect with kids? It took almost two years before I really felt like things were turning around.
What made the difference? It’s hard to say, but it was a combination of factors. Most importantly, word-of-mouth. The series grew from the ground up, with one kid recommending the book to his or her friends. Booksellers and teachers and librarians started talking. I toured and did school visits relentlessly. The Sea of Monsters got on the Scholastic Book Club video, which was no small thing. The state reading lists started kicking in. And suddenly, just before the Titan’s Curse was released, the series seemed to reach critical mass and sales exploded.
But boy, it was a long time coming. I felt like I was clawing my way up a pit, tooth and nail. Am I complaining? Of course not. I’m just marveling at how uncertain I felt for so long. Nothing about the series’ success seemed inevitable. Even after I got the ‘ultimate break’ of being published for the first time, it was another eight years of writing while teaching full-time before I could go full-time as a writer, and two years more before I really felt like I was going to succeed. And still, who knows what will happen six months or a year from now? There are no guarantees.
As with any high-profile job, writing is judged by the exceptions in the field, not the average. When the general public hears the word ‘author,’ they think J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, James Patterson. They hear ‘basketball player,’ they think of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan. It’s an easy jump to think that all authors are like J.K. Rowling, and every basketball player is Michael Jordan. In fact, 99% of authors have never and will never experience anything like the success of the top 1%. Most writers, even if they manage to get published, never quit their day jobs. Most will never get on the bestseller list nor have their books made into a movie, just as most basketball players will never play in the NBA, and even those lucky few who do will never make the money of a superstar. Judging other books by the Harry Potter series is sort of like saying, “Well, that guy won the Powerball lottery, therefore everyone who plays should win the Powerball lottery.” That doesn’t mean we can’t dream. If a kid wants to aim at being a pro ball player, that’s awesome. If a writer wants to become the next ______ (fill-in-the-blank author), that’s fantastic, but it’s good to approach that ambition with your eyes open. It will most likely be a long, hard road with no guarantee that success will come. Exceptions are rare, which is why they get so much attention. For every well-known author you can think of, there are a thousand more struggling in the purgatory known as the “midlist,” and tens of thousands who are still trying to get published. And even those well-known authors probably struggled a lot longer and harder than you realize to get where they are.
I’m not saying this to gripe, or gloat, or whine. I’m just trying to provide some context, so when I tell you how grateful I am for the success of the books, and how lucky I feel, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. People ask me what I think about getting so much attention, and how it’s changed my life. It really hasn’t. I’m the same guy who sat in Waldenbooks for two hours, giving directions and smiling vacantly at a stream of shoppers who were trying to ignore me. I’m the same guy who stared at countless rooms full of empty chairs in countless bookstores for ten years. I am still amazed every time I get a crowd at an event. I take nothing for granted.
But you can’t really explain something like that in the middle of an event. It’s too hard to put into words without people thinking that I’m bragging or complaining. So the next time someone asks me, “How does it feel to be an overnight success?” I plan on smiling politely and saying, “It feels great.”
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
You can read the whole article here.
"The Maze of Bones" will be out next fall from Scholastic. I'm very excited about it! Rest assured, this does not affect any of my other projects -- Percy Jackson or Tres Navarre. I've continued to work hard on both and they will go forward as scheduled. I think once you meet the Cahill family of 39 Clues, however, you're going fall under their spell. I know I did when Scholastic first broached the idea to me! I will post more information as I am able, but most details of the project are still labeled "top secret." All I can promise is it's going to be fun!
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Monday, December 03, 2007
Among my favorites, a packet of cool stuff from Mrs. Supovitz’s fifth grade class in Parkland, Florida. Mrs. S does a Greek mythology unit every year, and just recently added the Lightning Thief to her curriculum. Her kids researched individual gods and goddesses and became those gods. I got a great picture of the kids in costume, a CD of mythology “greatest hits,” and a bound anthology of their research presentations. Fantastic stuff! I’m sending them all signed book plates. Hopefully I don’t miss anybody!
In another letter, Evan from St. Petersburg writes that he just moved to Florida from Iowa, and has been reading the Percy books to make the transition a little easier. Evan is very interested in the meaning of names, and asked what Perseus means. If you’re curious, it means Avenger. He also said he liked all of the gods except that blacksmith guy Hepatitis. I think he meant Hephaestus, but I don’t like hepatitis much either! Thanks for your great questions, Evan.
Andres from Lawrenceville, Georgia made the kind of comment every writer lives for: “This book was a rare book because it changed me. I didn’t always like adventure books but when I read your book, there was a little tingle inside me that wanted me to read more adventure books.” That’s awesome, Andres. Keep reading those adventures!
Finally, Michael from Natick, Massachusetts had some comments about summer reading that made me laugh: “It was the best because all the other summer reading books have to do with some nerd or challenged kid who has a bad life and it just keeps on getting boring from there. I think that these books are picked to teach us some life lesson that barely anyone gets because they either don’t finish the book because it is so boring or they do finish it and couldn’t get one thing out of it because they just wanted to finish it. But your book did teach lessons but in a cool, sword-fighting, Greek god way.” As a student, I felt the same way about many of the books I was made to read, and I have a lot of sympathy for you, Michael! Too often, the school curriculum is guilty as charged, but I hope you find plenty of other books that teach in a cool way. I’m glad you liked Lightning Thief.
That’s just a sampling of the mail from the last few weeks. I’ve gotten so many other great comments from all over the U.S., Canada, the UK, and beyond. Finally, a special shout-out to Tarang and his friends in Mumbai, who are wondering when I will come visit India. Maybe some day, Tarang, but until then, keep reading and holding the mythological monsters at bay!