Like countless others on New Year’s Day 2013, Kayla Cagan made a resolution. Hers was to create one page a day in the journal of a high school artist for a year. (The working title was even Every Damn Day.) At the end of the year, she hoped to have a complete draft of a diary-style novel.
“I was a theater kid, but my best friend in high school was an artist and I was always so impressed with her talent, how she could put pen to paper and make something,” said Cagan, a dramaturg and social media consultant, whose clients include the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. She’d nurtured an interest in artists’ and poets’ lives all her adult life, reading memoirs, biographies, and their correspondence. “They often delve into what it’s like to be artists and have relationships as adults. I really wanted to explore the lives of artists, but read about them as developing young adults, too.”
By the end of 2013, Cagan had a draft, and after spending the next year revising and editing, she had a new title: The Pieces of Piper Perish, a diary of a Texas high school senior who dreams of living in New York City with her best friend and fellow artist, Kit, an Etsy entrepreneur. Both girls apply to a Manhattan art school. Piper is admitted, but without the necessary financial aid; Kit is not even accepted. What now?
Cagan’s critique partners were enthusiastic. “They told me, ‘This is different than anything else you’ve ever written,’ and, ‘This is going to go to auction, you know that, right?’ I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know if I could get an agent,” Cagan said.
But bolstered by her friends’ confidence, she wrote to agents, including Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management, who found Cagan’s query in the slush pile and “immediately knew it was the real deal, that once-in-a-lifetime, truly unique find.” Jaffa sent the manuscript to editors in August, pitched as “Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun with an Andy Warhol twist.” Within two weeks, it sold at auction to Chronicle Books in a six-figure, two-book deal.
“We were late to get involved – I think she already had pre-empt offers on the table, so I read it quickly, and entirely on my iPhone; that’s how good it was,” said Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director at Chronicle. “The last time I read something on my iPhone was when I was participating in an auction for [Gayle Forman’s] If I Stay, so you can tell I was mesmerized by it.”
Seo put associate editor Taylor Norman in charge of creating a proposal. Norman had read it simultaneously with Seo, the two texting each other nonstop about their love for the manuscript. “It really did take just that initial glance to know that this book is incredibly important,” Norman said. “Once-in-a-lifetime important. Generationally explanative; generationally inspirational.” The first thing Norman did was make sure everybody else in-house read it, too, beginning with senior designer Amelia Mack, who was commissioned to create a mock dust jacket.
Cagan had always envisioned the novel as a journal in which her main character would naturally doodle because of her artistic talent. Norman said that idea immediately occurred to her, too, so she asked Mack to create some mock-ups of what the interior pages would look like with illustrations. Finally, Norman asked everyone who had read (and loved) the book, to submit a photo of themselves from high school, a photo of themselves holding the mock book jacket, and a short blurb about what they most liked about Cagan’s story.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jaffa said. “There were six pages of testimonials!”
Cagan was overwhelmed. “It was extraordinary,” she said. “I can’t even really express how I felt when I saw it. I wanted to frame the whole thing.”
Though other publishers offered more money, and had bigger YA presences via their websites and social media, Cagan went with Chronicle, a company whose products she had been buying for years. “I had to tell them, ‘I haven’t read any of your fiction,’ and they said, ‘We’re building our YA list,’ but we come from the same creative, arty world, and business-wise they know what they’re doing.”
“What sets us apart is our sense of design, our passion, and the fact that we’re small. It’s easier for us to get everybody on board,” said Seo, who came to Chronicle in 2011 hoping to expand the company’s YA list. Making inroads in the hypercompetitive YA market has been tough. “It’s been challenging, and the market has changed a lot over those four years,” she said. But Cagan’s story is the type of book she’s been looking for – one that fits with Chronicle’s reputation for ground-up creativity, a story about an artist for a house that publishes a lot of art books. Seo envisions making it a centerpiece of the 2017 list.
“Do I want to make this a megaseller? Do I want this to be John Green? Don’t we all,” she said. “But this is a story that is going to speak to a lot of girls, especially, and it’s a really refreshing story. The kid is a good kid. The parents are good parents. It’s not a downer. It’s just a great, interesting story about a really creative, wonderful girl. Who wouldn’t want to publish that?”