Due from Egmont USA on September 6, Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes, a post-apocalyptic survival story for teens, will be released with the most extensive marketing push in the imprint’s two-year history. Ashes has a 125,000-copy announced first printing, the largest ever for the publisher.
In fact, the campaign swung into action ahead of pub date when the author attended BEA and ALA and embarked on a pre-pub bookstore tour. Bick will hit the road again next month, when she’ll visit 14 cities. And the tour is only part of the low six-figure marketing campaign that includes national consumer and trade advertising, online author video interviews, promotion at Comic-Con NYC, and outreach to science fiction and fantasy media.
To create the novel, Bick drew from her fascination with survival in the face of disaster, and from her experiences as a child psychiatrist and a former Air Force major. Bick, who attended medical school while serving in the Air Force at both the Lackland and Andrews bases during the Gulf War, decided to get a degree in psychiatry after initially pursuing surgery. She has witnessed the aftermath of war on individuals, and has worked with many patients living through difficult times. “I have talked with people in horrible circumstances, when they must make difficult, life-changing decisions,” she says. “Real life can be morally ambiguous, especially in a disaster situation. People do things they never thought they’d do when they’re in a struggle to survive, which is certainly true with the characters in Ashes.”
In Ashes, which centers on an orphaned young woman and a soldier just home from Afghanistan, Bick explores the physical and emotional turmoil of survivors in the wake of apocalyptic catastrophe. “I grew up reading science fiction, and there seemed to be a wave of novels in the 1980s about the destruction of the earth,” she recalls. “I’ve always found the theme of struggling for survival after a disaster so interesting—the compromises people must make and the rules they must break to survive. And my father is a Holocaust survivor, and that kind of catastrophe, where the world crumbles and people become monsters, has always been a kind of background music in my life.”
The author traces her transformation to author to her childhood years, when she didn’t do as much writing as she did mental storytelling. “My parents didn’t allow TV and encouraged reading, but also expected their children to do tons of chores,” she says. “As I did chores, I remember telling myself stories—and of course I always had a lead role in them. In college I majored in English and biology, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. At one point I envisioned myself wearing tweed and smoking a pipe while teaching English in a university!”
Instead she chose medical school, yet during a residency in psychiatry she moved onto yet another track. “I found myself getting kind of bored—I’m always getting bored,” she remarks. “So I went to school at night and got my masters at Wesleyan, where I explored psychiatric principles in film and literature. I started writing on that subject and presented papers in academic and medical circles. And then my husband, who’s also a physician, told me he suspected that what I really wanted to write was stories. So I decided to try.”
After writing for several years and getting discouraged about ever landing a publishing deal, in 1999 Bick wrote a short story that won grand prize in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds contest and was anthologized in Pocket Books’ Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 11 After writing a number of Star Trek novels and other adult series installments, she decided to branch out, wanting. “to create my own worlds and have more control over what I wrote.” Inspired by a writing workshop held by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Bick wrote her first YA novel, Draw the Dark, which was published by Carolrhoda Lab last year.
Ashes found a home with Egmont USA after editor Greg Ferguson received the manuscript from agent Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. He knew immediately he wanted to publish the novel. “What struck me most was the authenticity of the story,” he says. “Ilsa didn’t just do research, but she’s lived it—obviously not the apocalypse—but the survival tests. She spends a lot of time in the woods and often camps out. As her heroine tries to figure out a way to survive, her circumstances feel so real. The way Ilse weaves that story and scientific fact together is so very compelling.”
After Egmont USA made a pre-emptive offer for Ashes, Ferguson was pleasantly surprised when he met Bick. “We knew we were getting a fantastic book, but it wasn’t till I met and began working with Ilsa that I knew we were also getting an author with incredible personality and intelligence,” he says. “She has a fascinating life story and so much enthusiasm, and the feedback we’ve had from sales reps and booksellers has been incredible.” Ferguson reports that advance sales of Ashes have been strong, and that the novel has been sold to publishers in six countries.
Bick plans to stick with YA fiction. “Once I got started in this genre, I haven’t looked back,” she says. “Writing for this age group is quite a bit different than writing for adults. It’s not that you can’t be dark or gritty, but with YA there has to be some sort of redemption. Otherwise it just doesn’t work.”
Ashes launches a trilogy that continues with Shadows, which Egmont USA will release in fall 2012, and a final volume, still untitled, that is due out the following fall. Bick has finished Shadows, but hasn’t yet started the third book. “I already know exactly what will happen—I even know the last scene and the very last sentence,” she says. “Now I just have to write it.”
Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-60684-175-4