"Mockingbird" Monday Reflections, Blog

Mockingbird Monday – The Story Behind The Mockingbird Parables

Many authors and agents have expressed to me that I went through more drama getting my first book published than I will probably experience in my entire writing career. It is an interesting story which I began writing about last week — you can get caught up on last week’s blog here: https://mattlitton.com/2011/05/09/mockingbird-monday-the-story-behind-the-mockingbird-parables/. I hope it will provide some encouragement for inspiring writers, maybe some entertainment for readers of The Mockingbird Parables, and some enlightenment for anyone interested in the (sometimes complicated) process of publishing a book.

I was writing The Mockingbird Parables (which at this point held the working title Jesus Meets Boo Radley); we had received a rejection from one arm of Thomas Nelson Publishing and had decided to move on pitching the book proposal to other publishers. Several weeks later, we received a message from an editor at Nelson who wanted to take the book to their pub board (the final step in deciding to publish a book). The book passed through the Nelson decision-making process. We celebrated by visiting Thomas Nelson on a family visit to Nashville in July 2009. We met up with my agent, Kyle Olund, were very warmly greeted and given the chance to take several pictures in the

One of the early cover art options for The Mockingbird Parables

Nelson board room. Our visit felt a little premature because Thomas Nelson had not yet sent the contract. I had several chapters written at this point. (Most publishers actually prefer that you not write the entire book before it is submitted, so that ideas can be molded and visions aligned). So, in July and August I completed the introduction “To Kill a Mockingbird and the Power of Parables” and outlined the remaining chapters. It was during this time that The Mockingbird Parables received its final name and really took shape. Finally, the contract from Thomas Nelson arrived in August. We celebrated and exhaled a sigh of relief. According to the contract with Nelson, the manuscript was to be submitted on Oct 31, 2009.

I began to feverishly write. I had always envisioned writing my first book at my dad’s antique writing desk in a study lined with books. I might even do it donning some reading glasses and a sport coat with patches on the elbows. On occasions of writer’s block, I may even smoke a pipe. Needless to say, it didnt quiteunfold as “glamorously” as that. I dont own glasses, a pipe, or a jacket with patches on the elbows. With our four children there was certainly no sacred space to work. The reality of writing a book is that you have to show up to work every single day. Writers describe their craft differently. I know of writers who have a goal of producing so many words per day. For others, it is simply devoting a set amount of time. I discovered that for me, writing is more like fishing. I made sure to show up to a quiet place each day and sit down at the computer with my outlines. Many days there were long periods of silent, still waiting. I would ritualistically troll back and forth across the keys. I might throw out a line and then real it back off of the screen. Often, for hours on end, nothing would catch. Other days, every line I threw out would seem to draw a reward. To continue the fishing analogy, there were days the fish seemed to dive into my boat. I could never really tell in advance if my day would be productive or not. I didn’t accomplish any more writing at my kitchen table than I did in my bedroom or sitting on my mom’s quiet back porch or a coffee shop. There was no formula or rhythm other than making the commitment to show up and be ready to “cast” several hours each day.

The manuscript was submitted on time and I began to work back and forth with the editor I was assigned. The editorial process was interesting and very quick. My editor would make changes in the document and send them back for me to approve or reject. The whole process was over before December and everything was on track.

January began with high hopes. We were endeavoring to schedule the release of the book so that it would coincide with the 50th Anniversary Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. We had asked the Publisher on several occasions if we should be concerned about permissions. I had used a handful of quotes from Harper Lee’s classic, not because I had to, but because they were beautiful lines that added to the poignancy of how Lee’s wonderful novel had impacted my life. We were repeatedly assured not to worry, that getting permissions wouldn’t be a problem. Nothing could have been farther from the truth…

We sent a manuscript to Harper Collins (the publisher of TKaM) in December. They initially said we should reduce the word count of the quotes I had chosen to use. After paraphrasing many lines and reducing the number of words that my book had taken from TKaM to a small number, we felt confident. The interesting aspect of this is that we learned Harper Lee and her agent have NEVER granted anyone permission to use words from her work. Our contact at Harper Collins was unusually enthusiastic about The Mockingbird Parables, and felt positive about Lee’s agent giving us the green light. My hope was also grounded in the fact that I clearly express in my book that I was not intending to speak for Harper Lee. In fact, I made no claims to know what she was thinking or what she meant to say in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Mockingbird Parables was not an exegesis of Lee’s book, but rather an “eisegesis”. I was focusing on what her narrative meant in my life, from my own faith perspective. We were all hopeful that the permissions issue would be resolved quickly. It was not. Ms. Lee’s famed agent rejected the first two separate manuscripts and accompanying offers (to the surprise of many at Harper Collins) – each time we worked at reducing the word count.

Authors generally (and mistakenly) assume that signing a book contract guarantees that the publication of their book will follow. While we were all set for a well-timed release in May, our publisher was busy making other plans. Several weeks into March, we realized that no one from Thomas Nelson had answered our phone calls or e-mails for several weeks. This also happened to be just outside of specific binding language in the contract. Several days later, Nelson sent us a notice terminating ouragreement for The Mockingbird Parables. We were caught off guard. The letter cited the issue of gaining permissions as the reason for cancellation, but not only was this the first time they had voiced any concern about this issue, but thequestion of permissions was still weeks from being resolved. Months later, we found out that The Mockingbird Parables was one of many projects Thomas Nelson had cancelled in the spring of 2010 – for various reasons. We could only believe the reasons we weregiven by our friends at the publishing house.

There were too many wonderful people at Thomas Nelson to list, and we were as saddened to lose the opportunity to work with them as we were to lose the momentum that the book might have gained with a May 2010 release. Nelson was kind enough to turn the book completely back to us along with the beautiful cover art. Because the message of the book didn’t really depend on using thefew remaining quotesfrom To Kill a Mockingbird, we decided to remove them in order to go above and beyond the requirements of fair use. A college professor from New York remarked to me that my book read like a personal love letter to Harper Lee. I had approached the project with the utmost respect for the famous author and her words.Quotes were removed; the issue of permissions was finally resolved. Despite having no publisher and little chance of a timely release, we were still convicted that the messages inside the Parables about compassion and commitment to our neighbors in 21st century life was one that needed to be on a shelf. We pressed on toward the summer with no publisher and very little hope…

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