When Canadian author Eric Walters had the idea for an unusual YA series – seven linked adventure novels written by seven authors, all to be released simultaneously – he knew whom to approach: Orca Books, which the writer calls a house that “punches above its weight.” The author of some 80 books for young readers, Walters has worked with publishers large and small, including Orca, and appreciates the fact that an indie house can decide on an unusual project without the layers of approval required in larger houses.
For his part, Orca publisher Andrew Wooldridge says he saw potential in the project right away. Twenty minutes after receiving the pitch, he called Walters back to say yes, he would like to publish all seven books. Now, as Orca prepares for the October 10 launch, the Seven series is a fait accompli, but editor Sarah Harvey says that along the way the project seemed like “madness.”
The prolific Walters, who describes himself as “Type A,” began writing for children in the mid-1990s while working as an elementary school teacher, and is acutely aware of the difficulty in getting boys to read for pleasure. His adventure stories are specifically designed to appeal to male readers, and have been recognized numerous times by the Ontario Library Association’s Red Maple and Silver Birch awards, based on voting by more than 125,000 students across the province. He’s action-oriented in his own life as well: the author researched his contribution to the Seven series, Between Heaven and Earth, while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. His original idea was a novel about an adventurer who, in his will, asks his grandson to spread his ashes from the Tanzanian peak. Then, Walters says, “I thought, what if he had more than one grandson? What if he had seven?” Wondering how some of his peers would tackle the narrative, he conceived of a series of seven linked stories written by as many authors.
Once Orca had signed the project, Walters made some phone calls and before long, several of Canada’s best-known writers of YA fiction were onboard: Shane Peacock, John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Sigmund Brouwer, and Norah McClintock. In choosing the other authors, Walters says, he “wanted people who were good writers. I wanted them to be able to write for boys. And I wanted people I liked.”
Walters gave each writer the outline of a scene: when adventurer David McLean dies at age 91, each of his seven teenage grandsons receives a letter from their grandfather, assigning him a task. The will-reading scene appears in each novel, though not necessarily at the beginning, and each author decided what his or her particular letter would say. “We really worked hard at making this a writers’ series,” Walters says, “so that people had the freedom to explore their own stories and genres.” In Wilson’s Lost Cause, one grandson traces their grandfather’s path as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. Brouwer’s Devil’s Pass sends another grandson to Canada’s Far North, and Close to the Heel, by McClintock, involves an Icelandic quest. The novels also vary in tone, Walters says: Peacock’s Last Message is a literary mystery; Jump Cut, by Staunton, is comedic; and Scrimger’s Ink Me is offbeat.
Peacock, whose main character sets off for France, says he was drawn to participate in the series because he liked the idea of collaborating with other authors whose work he admires. “We had this wonderful publishing opportunity, something that really hadn’t been done before,” he says. The writers bounced ideas back and forth via email, but Peacock and Wilson both credit Orca editor Sara Harvey with coordinating all of their efforts and making all of the pieces fit together.
Harvey explains that orchestrating the series required some serious organizational skills. “As the manuscripts came in,” she says, “I had a giant Excel sheet, and I had many index cards on my bulletin board – who had what [happening] when, and who did what to whom, and at what point.” Some books are more closely connected than others – two of the protagonists are twins, and two others are also brothers. Those pairs of authors consulted each other in the initial stages, but once Harvey had all the first drafts, she had to resolve any continuity issues. “I would have to say, ‘Somebody else in another book said this, and your book says that, so somebody has to change.’ There was a great deal of that, and there was considerable gnashing of teeth.”
Publishing seven linked novels simultaneously presents challenges for Wooldridge, too. “Rolling these out, getting them into stores, figuring out how people are going to buy them, has been an interesting thing,” he says. “It’s not like you release one, [and] try to generate enough buzz to get them to buy the second one. We want them to read one, read them all.” Orca has created a Web site for the Seven series that includes an action-movie style trailer. So far, he says, reviews and pre-order sales are both strong. The books, which were written to be read in any order, retail for $9.95 as individual paperbacks, or $59.95 in a boxed set.
Promotion and marketing, like the writing of the series, will be a group effort. In February this year, well in advance of the book’s October publication date, a few of the authors discussed the series on a panel at the Ontario Library Association’s annual conference. There will be launch events at Toronto’s Word on the Street literary festival on September 23 and its International Festival of Authors in October, as well as the Vancouver Writers Festival in October. The authors, sometimes all seven, will also travel together promoting the books. They plan to tour schools in southern Ontario, which will put them in contact with tens of thousands of kids – a challenge worthy of fictional adventurer David McLean himself.