My (mostly fun) journey with Chat, Connect, & Crash.
From the first, self-published edition of Chat in 1995, to the acquisition by Simon & Schuster in 1998, to the reversion of rights in 2012, the history of Chat, Connect, and Crash came full circle with the Rainwater Press publication of the trilogy in 2014. My journey with this series has been an adventure—always interesting, mostly fun, and sometimes a little heartbreaking. Here are some of the highlights of my escapades from self-published author to traditionally published author and back again.
Chat is the story of two strangers who meet online, unfolding entirely through their email messages to one another. Although epistolary novels have been around for hundreds of years, Chat was the first full-length email epistolary novel ever written. (It was also among the earliest novels sold online directly to readers—more on that later.) Because of my previous career working at a computer magazine, I first got online in 1987, fueling my lifelong love affair with email and online communications.
I wrote Chat in the spring and summer of 1995. While working on the novel I tried to get it published traditionally, sending queries via snail mail to about 25 publishers in all. Chat was quickly rejected by all of them save for one, an editor at Ballantine who asked to see the complete manuscript (exciting!) but who eventually turned it down, explaining in a personal letter that she liked the novel herself but couldn’t garner support for it from her colleagues. In spite of all the rejections, I found the one personalized response strangely encouraging. (We authors don’t need much to keep us plowing blindly ahead.)
Amidst all the rejections, and still flying high from the simply exhilarating experience of having written a novel, it occurred to me that with my background in digital publishing technology (writing how-to books and magazine articles on page layout software, prepress and printing techniques), I possessed the technical knowledge to produce the books myself. Keep in mind this was several years before the advent of ebooks, so back then “the latest technology” involved using page-layout software to create mechanicals that would be used in the production of printed copies. It wasn’t quite as “easy” as some people claim ebook production is today, but the new digital publishing technology of the mid-1990s did allow me access to less expensive prepress and production methods, especially since I had the experience and knowledge to do the page layout and production work myself.
So in late summer 1995 I began working with a book designer named David High, who I’d come to know when we worked together as freelancers on some corporate marketing projects and whose design work I featured in my computer book Quark Design: A Visual Guide to QuarkXPress (Peachpit Press, 1995). Although I’d only just finished writing Chat, I knew there’d eventually be three books in the series, so David created cover and interior designs for the entire set. I also hired one of my editorial peers at another computer magazine, Linnea Dayton, to copyedit the manuscript.
Using David’s interior design templates I worked on page composition while also interviewing and getting bids from various printers recommended by my local PIA (Printing Industries of America) chapter. After settling on a printer, I finalized the digital files, sent them to a prepress shop for camera-ready output and film negatives (for the cover), and the book was ready for printing.
Several nerve-wracking weeks later, just before Thanksgiving in November 1995, my husband and I picked up the boxes containing printed copies of Chat from the printer. Once back home, with boxes strewn around the kitchen, we excitedly began opening them. Our excitement quickly turned to shock and disappointment, however, as we realized about 20% of the books contained serious printing errors such as missing pages, repeated pages, double-imaged pages, and crooked pages. What a letdown. We ended up culling through the entire 2,500 print run to find around 2,000 usable books. (It wasn’t funny at the time, but I have an amusing memory of making a personal visit to the printing office the following Monday morning, a sample of unusable books in hand, asking to speak to the president of the company. I ended up cooling my heels in the lobby for quite some time—apparently the guy decided to hide out in his office, too chicken to come out and talk face-to-face with one pissed-off author. Suffice to say I didn’t end up paying for the unusable copies.)
Previously, while waiting for the books to come back from the printer, I’d begun laying the groundwork to market and sell the books myself. I set up a P.O. Box and an 800-number (yes, I had my own toll-free number readers could call to order copies of the books, which rang into our home and which I answered myself), and I also went through the arduous (at the time) process of becoming a credit card merchant, which included the banking official making a personal visit to my home office, where I gave him a computer demonstration of how I would receive and fulfill orders via email (“So this is the Internet,” I remember him saying). I also learned about ISBNs, purchasing a block of 100 from Reed Reference Publishing (later to become RR Bowker, now Bowker) for $165, which I thought was expensive at the time. (Today a single ISBN will set you back $125, while a block of 100 costs $575.)
My plan was to mail out 250 promotional copies of Chat as holiday gifts to my colleagues in the computer industry, and by the end of December my promotion efforts succeeded in creating some nice buzz about the book as well as providing me with much-appreciated positive feedback and encouragement. Some of my colleagues even published brief write-ups about the novel in industry publications like The Seybold Report and How magazine; I was also invited to write a guest feature about my self-publishing experience for Publish magazine. Meanwhile I’d begun taking orders for the books via email, snail mail, and my toll-free number while also making plans to construct my very own Rainwater Press website where I could take my e-commerce to the next level with an online order form and credit card processing.
For the website, I collaborated with another former colleague, Eric Llewellyn, a designer I’d worked with at a computer software company. Eric was at the cutting edge of HTML and Web design back in 1995, and with Eric’s design and programming skills and my copywriting and organizational skills, we were able to unveil the original Rainwater Press website in early 1996. (Though out-of-date, an archive of this website still exists at www.rainwater.com. For up-to-date information, you’ll want to continue visiting my current author website right here at www.nan-mccarthy.com.) I was now open for business as an author on the still-nascent World Wide Web, selling copies of my book directly to readers. Little did I know that the way I was selling my book (online) would be as much a part of the story as the book itself.
The following year, in the summer of 1996, while I continued selling copies of Chat, I wrote the second book in the series, Connect, returning to the story of Bev and Max and their growing fascination with one another. This second book was also self-published, again with a print run of 2,500 copies (though using a different printer this time), copyedited by Linnea Dayton, and featuring another eye-catching cover design by David High.
By this time things with the books were beginning to percolate. I was approached by Ted Nace, founder and publisher of Peachpit Press, who was interested in a co-publishing deal for Chat. This was a bold move on Ted’s part because Peachpit was primarily a computer book publisher, and Chat would be the publishing house’s first work of fiction. Ted and I came to an agreement, and in late summer 1996, Chat was released to a wider audience (including bookstore distribution) with a second print run of 20,000 copies. Along with the national bookstore distribution provided by Peachpit, I continued selling both Chat and Connect directly to readers via my website, email, and 800 number.
What’s more, publishers in other countries began approaching me about foreign rights. In late 1996 and early 1997, I sold translation rights for Chat to Spanish publisher Pagina Uno and Korean publisher Ahn Graphics. Also around this time, due to the wider distribution offered by Peachpit and my continued marketing and promotion efforts (including sending complimentary copies of Chat along with custom Chat t-shirts to the White House, Oprah, Stephen King, and Dave Barry among others), publications such as The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and People began to take note, publishing reviews of the books as well as articles about the new and unusual way I was using the Internet to successfully promote and sell my books directly to readers. (Sample headline from The Wall Street Journal: “Unknown Novelist Wins Following on Web by Self-Promotion and Luck.”)
In the summer of 1997 I wrote the third book in the trilogy, Crash, and Chinese translation rights to all three books were sold to Addison-Wesley in Taiwan. Around this same time, after the People magazine write-up in the spring of 1997, I was contacted via email by a literary agent in New York who’d seen the write-up and offered representation. With the blessing of Ted Nace and the release from my agreement with Peachpit, my agent subsequently sold the rights to all three books to the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster (one of the very same publishers who’d rejected the manuscript two years previously). Meanwhile, the books and my Rainwater website were continuing to get press coverage, with a second write-up in Publishers Weekly and articles in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, New City, Chicago Books in Review, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Denver Westword, and others.
These were exciting times. I’d been working non-stop promoting the books in addition to spending a good amount of time processing and shipping orders coming in through my website. Although I enjoyed the marketing aspect of what I was doing, my first love has always been writing, and I yearned for more time to get back to writing and start work on a new novel. I viewed the offer from Simon & Schuster as an opportunity to make use of a larger publishing house’s marketing, sales, and distribution channels, taking Chat, Connect, and Crash to new levels while also allowing me more time to focus on writing.
Although I’d already more than recouped my self-publishing costs, the advance from Simon & Schuster (which my agent described as “respectable”) was a nice boost, both financially and career-wise. At the time the contract was offered, my agent mentioned S&S wanted to make some “very minor” changes to the ending of Crash that would take “two minutes.” I was slightly concerned but the changes were downplayed and I didn’t press further—after all, I was eager, inexperienced in the ways of traditional publishing deals, and didn’t want to jeopardize the offer.
Over the course of the following year (it took about twelve months from contract signing to publication, even though S&S didn’t have to do production work on the first two books since they used my previously created QuarkXPress files for the interiors), I remained busy working with Pocket Books on cover consultations, marketing and promotion plans, production details, and figuring out the new ending they requested for Crash. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the books yet, but suffice to say S&S wanted a “happier” ending than the one I’d originally written. Overall I didn’t have a problem with modifying the ending to suit their tastes, but the process was arduous—a lot of back and forth over a period of about two months (a lot longer than the “two minutes” originally mentioned)—with the end result being a compromise I wasn’t too excited about, but which the powers-that-be at S&S seemed happy enough with.
Meanwhile, I had begun work on a new novel, and we continued selling foreign rights—to Simon & Schuster UK (who created the pink, green, and blue cover designs also used on the U.S. versions of the books), Turkish publisher Oglak, German publisher Goldmann, Slovenian publisher Ucila, and Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Prometheus.
Simon & Schuster published all three books in trade paperback in the fall of 1998, with a print run of 30,000 copies. I’m proud to say the books were profitable enough that I “earned out” my advance relatively quickly, and the press coverage continued for a short while with write-ups in Mademoiselle, Entertainment Weekly, The Orange County Register, Washington Post Book World, and CNN.com (one of the earlier online news sites). I also signed an amended contract allowing Simon & Schuster to sell the trilogy in electronic format (the term “ebook” wasn’t widely in use at the time) on “portable handheld devices” such as the Softbook ($299), Rocketbook ($500), and EB Dedicated Reader ($1400-$1600), making digital editions of the books available for purchase in early 1999.
While I continued to receive royalty statements and checks from Simon & Schuster for sales of Chat, Connect, & Crash, in 2000 I embarked on a new project, interviewing my father’s childhood friends for a memoir of my father’s life (he died young of alcoholic cirrhosis at age 39) called Live ’Til I Die, which I published under the Rainwater Press imprint in December 2001, just a month before my mom’s death in January 2002. Though sales of the memoir never came close to those of my email trilogy, writing and publishing Live ’Til I Die was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a project I’m proud of to this day.
Not long after I completed Live ’Til I Die, and nearly four years after the trilogy’s trade paperback publication by Simon & Schuster, I received word from S&S in early 2002 that the Chat, Connect, and Crash books would soon go out of print. In exchange for some foreign rights monies that had never been paid to me, I negotiated delivery of several hundred copies of each book (copies that would’ve otherwise been destroyed). Also at that time, at my request and as per my contract, my agent sent a letter to S&S asking that the rights to the books be reverted back to me, but I never heard back from anyone.
Although it wasn’t something I planned on, I ended up taking a break from full-time writing over the next ten years (though I continued accepting short-term gigs like writing a guest column for The Kansas City Star). Due to my husband’s career in the Marine Corps, we moved around a lot (including two cross-country moves during the time I was writing and promoting Chat, Connect, and Crash). By the time we landed in the Kansas City area in 2003, our two sons were approaching their teen years and my husband was traveling more and more (including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2008). There just wasn’t enough of me to go around to be a full-time writer, a military spouse charged with running the household during my husband’s frequent absences, and the kind of mom I wanted to be to our two teenage sons. So writing novels was put on the back burner for a while—a long while. It was a decision I’m happy to have made, and though I missed writing full-time, the upside was that the time spent living my life and focusing on my family filled my creative well to overflowing.
Surprisingly, during this period I continued receiving small royalty checks from Simon & Schuster, mostly for the ebook editions of the trilogy being sold via online outlets such as Amazon. I also continued selling a small number of printed copies of Chat, Connect, Crash, and Live ’Til I Die via direct orders from my website, email, and snail mail, and in 2011 Chat was the subject of a thesis paper by an Italian grad student named Antonietta D’Amore. Antonietta was a student at L’Orientale University in Naples, Italy who translated the book to Italian and interviewed me extensively (via email, of course) about Chat and the linguistics of Internet communication.
By 2012, with my husband retired from the Marine Corps, one son graduated from college and another well on his way, I finally felt like I could get back to focusing full-time on my writing career. One of the first things I did was send a letter to the publisher of Simon & Schuster once again asking for a reversion of rights to the trilogy as per my contract (briefly mentioning I’d been waiting ten years for a response to my first request), and within a couple weeks I received a signed reversion of rights agreement from S&S.
In 2012 I also began work on a new novel related to military life, the idea for which came to me during my husband’s deployment to Iraq in 2008. (That novel eventually turned into the four-part Since You Went Away series.)
In the first few months of 2014, I took some time away from working on the new novel to create and publish new editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash under the Rainwater Press imprint now that I had the rights back. What a thrill it’s been to once again have ownership of these books!
Because so much time had passed and my digital files of the manuscripts were on old media such as floppy disks and SyQuest cartridges (and therefore difficult if not impossible to access), I ended up having to type all three manuscripts from scratch into new Word documents (which wasn’t so bad since I’m a fast typist). I also ended up digging through boxes of old files to find the first manuscript for Crash written in 1997, using it as a reference to restore the original ending. This in itself was a gratifying and exciting experience—with the original ending to Crash now intact, the trilogy on the whole feels stronger and more authentic to me.
I hired Faith Simmons (who happens to be my niece in addition to an editorial goddess) to copyedit all three newly typed manuscripts. I also contacted David High of High Design, who designed the original editions of the trilogy back in ’95 and who agreed to work with me again on creating fresh covers and interior designs for the new editions. And because of technological advancements over the last decade, I decided to hire a typesetter with skills in ebook adaptation (instead of attempting to do the production work myself this time). Kevin Callahan of BNGO Books created page mechanicals based on David’s new designs, and he also converted the books to the proper digital formats for upload to all the major online ebook retailers including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
The ebook editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash became available for purchase in April 2014 (and perhaps you’ve followed the link to this article from within the ebooks themselves—if so, thank you!). As I prepared the new editions of Chat, Connect, and Crash, I realized that 2020 will be the trilogy’s 25th anniversary. I hope to release printed copies of the books soon, along with a possible fourth book in the series (Cloud), that will bring us up-to-date on Bev and Max’s story twenty-five years later. I’m also working on a bonus book featuring background info on some of the obscure details and 1990s pop culture references in the trilogy. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll eventually have the resources to create a boxed set of all five books (Chat, Connect, Crash, Cloud, and the bonus book). (In the meantime, I’m devoting all of my time to writing and publishing the Since You Went Away series.)
In spite of the inevitable heartbreaks involved in any publishing venture, I’ve had more than my share of fun with these books. I’m grateful for every obstacle, every disappointment, and every person I encountered along the way. Each experience has brought me to this point in my life, a place I’m very happy to be. I’m excited about taking advantage of the many new technologies and platforms available to writers who want to independently publish their books these days. When I wake up each morning, my mind can barely contain the ideas I have for new books and new ways to market and sell them. The best part about my publishing journey? It’s only just the beginning.