Seattle Post Intelligencer 3/20/2004

Once there were two fathers in two kingdoms who spun fabulous stories for their young daughters.

Stories in which the creatures were magical, the danger fierce and the day saved — by brave and idealistic girls.

One of the dads grew up to be Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, now a self-published author eyeing, on the far horizon, a possible career as a children’s writer.

The other, Patrick Carman, is a Walla Walla entrepreneur whose self-published children’s fantasy, “The Dark Hills Divide,” already has propelled him across the threshold of success.

In an auction that ended March 12, Carman clinched a three-book deal with Scholastic worth between $200,000 and $350,000, according to his agent, Peter Rubie.

The message? Self-publishing, historically the poor cousin of the book world, is becoming a more respectable route to an audience, despite the risks and expense.

“I think this is part of a trend that started several years ago with ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ and ‘The Christmas Box,’ among other books,” Rubie said, adding that it’s easier than ever to do a self-published book with a quality look.

“What most writers forget,” he said, “is that the key to publishing is distribution — getting someone to take the book and get it into stores or the hands of your intended audience. The majority of self-published authors fall down badly in this department.”

Of course, it’s the dazzling exceptions that spur writers on. “Eragon,” a self-published fantasy by Montana teen Christopher Paolini, was picked up by Knopf in a three-book deal worth a reported $500,000. Republished last August, it became a No. 1 best seller.

Then there’s Michael Hoeye, who self-published “Time Stops for No Mouse” after sketching out his ideas on a napkin at a Portland cafe. The book rallied enough grass-roots fans that Putnam gave him a $1.8 million deal for three books.

Those successes don’t come easy. Paolini, who reportedly turned down a full scholarship to Reed College in Oregon to promote his book, made 135 appearances in 2002 and sold 10,000 copies before signing with Knopf.

Carman, a self-made businessman, has followed Paolini’s playbook. He poured more than $25,000 into “The Dark Hills Divide,” the first volume in his planned “Land of Elyon” trilogy. He hired top-notch pros to do the artwork, design, editing and publicity, then set up school visits and bookstore signings to stimulate sales.

“We just started creating all this buzz,” Carman said, “and an agent contacted us from New York.”

Judith Chandler of Third Place Books said she was astonished when Carman drew more than 400 kids to an unscheduled appearance in late January, just from the excitement he had generated through school visits. For self-published authors, she said, marketing is half the battle.

“We sold about 180 copies that night,” she said. “That is stunning. I think it could be another one like “Eragon,” easily.”

Fittingly, Carman was speaking to a gym full of school kids when the call came that Scholastic had made a deal. By then, he already had made back most of his money, with nearly 6,000 books sold and a third print run — of 10,000 copies — in the works.

He also had been invited to speak to booksellers attending the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference, guaranteeing even more buzz.

“The Dark Hills Divide” grew out of stories Carman told his young daughters, now 7 and 9. It focuses on 12-year-old Alexa Daley, who explores what lies beyond her walled kingdom and stumbles onto a plot to destroy the Land of Elyon from within.

“It’s probably one of the better children’s books I’ve seen in a long time,” said Michelle Price, events coordinator at the Tri-Cities Barnes & Noble, which has chosen Carman’s book as the main selection of its summer reading program.

Scholastic, which plans to unveil the re-edited “The Dark Hills Divide” in hardcover around Christmas, will let Carman reprint it in paperback until November. Then he’s out of the self-publishing business. Fans will have to wait until December 2005 for the sequel.

Licata has taken a more low-key approach. He has done some interviews and a major bookstore appearance, with more in the works. But his real ambitions as an author appear to lie further down the road.

His immediate goal was to revive a 15-year-old manuscript based on taped stories he sent his daughter when she lived in China for a year with her mother. After their return, Licata sought local mentors and spent several years revising and packaging the story. (Karin McGinn, features copy desk chief at the Post-Intelligencer, was hired to do a first edit.)

The result, “Princess Bianca and the Vandals,” is a fast-paced, if still unpolished, eco-wizard story about a girl who rescues her mother and saves her pristine kingdom from marauding, anti-green Vandals.

“When I finished it 10 years ago,” Licata said, “I naively threw it into the mail to some East Coast publishers. But that doesn’t work too well, unless you have an in. I didn’t have the energy to do a full-scale (publicity) campaign. And because so many themes are common to the Northwest, I wanted to have some control over the presentation.”

He said he promised to publish it himself if his daughter graduated from college and he won a second term on the city council — “and those things happened.”

He has sold several hundred copies since October, mainly through his Web site,

The Elliott Bay Book Co. has moved a respectable 20 copies since Licata’s signing there in November, and Amazon picked up the book this month. (Daughter Eleanor, now in Ankara, Turkey, already has plugged it twice online.)

“I don’t expect this book to be a huge critical or commercial success,” Licata said, “but I did want to share a bit of fantasy with others, particularly children, with regards to the world we live in. … Time permitting in the future, I’d like to write more for both children and adults. I have a small drawer full of short fiction pieces and eventually I’d like to get them out as well.”

Even if “Princess Bianca” isn’t destined for the big time, it reveals a lively storytelling talent, honed by Licata’s childhood experience as a campfire raconteur.

“I had dyslexia and I didn’t read until I was 9 years old,” Licata said. “So I made up stories for my peers.”

It also demonstrates a drawback of self-publishing: Without a book editor’s steady hand, do-it-yourselfers are hard-pressed to get the story and packaging details just right. Even Carman’s book, which is unusually polished, has some misspellings, grammatical errors and anachronisms.

As Chandler put it, “Usually when you get a first-time author with a book they have self-published, the quality is suspect, the art isn’t quite right and it ends up with a loving-hands-at-home quality.”

So, is self-publishing the way to go? If you have a good story and a ton of hustle — maybe. Carman said his experience has been “very positive,” partly because of the help he got from Northwest booksellers.

But note this warning from Judith Haut, Random House publicity director: “It really comes down to the book,” she said, “and the talent the writer has.”


Both Patrick Carman and Nick Licata have local bookstore appearances lined up.

Carman will talk about “The Dark Hills Divide” at 5 p.m. March 26 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E.

Licata will read and sign copies of “Princess Bianca and the Vandals” at the following locations: 1 p.m. March 27 at Wit’s End Bookstore, 4262 Fremont Ave. N., and 6 p.m. May 1 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E.

Patrick Carman