When I was a teenager I had a file that I labelled “inspiration.” It contained articles about authors who had been published as teens. And as I grew older and I added more articles to the folder, I hoped that my competitive streak would flare up and get me writing.
The first article I put in that folder was about Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, who had her first book published at 14. I think I was 17 or 18 at the time. I read one of her books, Demon in My View. Damn! I thought. She’s got me beat. Then, I can do this. I can write a novel. Hers isn’t even that long. (Didn’t happen).
The second article I put in the “inspiration” folder was about Jenn Crowell. Her novel, Necessary Madness, was published when she was 18. Here was a teen writing for an adult audience. Why??? I wailed in my head. Why can’t I have a book published too??? (Because I hadn’t written one yet).
Over the years I had come across and read many a book written by a teen author: Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope (age 15) (Why can’t MY journals have gotten published?), Eragon by Christopher Paolini (age 17), I’m sure there are many more I’m not thinking of. Here’s a list, although it doesn’t include S.E. Hinton, who wrote The Outsiders when she was 15.
I eventually vowed to write a novel by the time I graduated college. (Didn’t happen). I couldn’t compete with all those published teen authors, especially now that I was in my twenties. Only when I took a notebook and told myself that I wouldn’t stop until I had either filled it or written a complete novel did I finally write a novel. (That was Bethany Caleb).
I was reminded of this by an article in the New York Times about parents who are paying sometimes significant amounts of money to get their teenage child’s book into print. Which really is less about teen authors making it big than about self-publishing, and where self-publishing is going to lead in years to come. As a teen I would have been thrilled to pieces to see a book with my name across the cover. Back when I was a teen we learned about vanity presses and how they were Bad and meant that real publishers would never take you seriously, and about those poetry contests that were scams to make you shell out $65 for a hardcover encyclopedia of poetry for that one little page with your poem on it.
Self-publishing can’t be all bad. Look at Chris Paolini, at Amanda Hocking, at any number of self-published writers out there now, publishing their books with hardly any down payment but with some marketing savvy, landing themselves a traditional publisher. Even fanfiction writers like E.L. James are getting publishing deals. As long as you have an audience, and can prove people want to read what you write, it seems you can get a traditional publishing deal in the long run.
And breaking into traditional publishing is so difficult! Check out my rejection counter for proof… Traditional publishers and agents are not looking to take on debut authors with no audience. But these teens (who are capable of a writing a whole book as I was unable to do while still a teen), maybe their first foray into self-publishing will only sell a few hundred copies. Maybe their second book sells a few more, and they begin to build a fan base. Maybe by the time they hit adulthood, they’ve got a following and a traditional publisher will be willing to take a chance on them…
Self-publishing is so tempting. I keep giving myself deadlines (currently: I’ll self-publish when I’m 40, if that’s still around as a thing). But maybe that’s too late?