Author Lehua Parker stopped by today to talk about her Middle Grade/Young Adult series, The Niuhi Shark Saga. You can find her previous interview on the blog here.
When Pidgin Doesn’t Fly
It should’ve been obvious that when I intentionally wrote a series set in Hawaii with dialogue in colloquial Hawaiian Pidgin English for MG/YA boys who don’t like to read, it was going to be a tough sell. Not only does my target audience not know I exist, they aren’t even looking.
It’s enough to make publishers and publicists resort to chucking bottles of gin and cases of cigarettes into volcanos as bribes to temperamental fire goddesses to help a sister out.
Sometimes it’s hard to get noticed.
The Niuhi Shark Saga was acquired by Jolly Fish Press (JFP) as a five book arc with the understanding that a new title would emerge from the womb ready to publish every nine months to a year. JFP is a brand-spanking-new traditional publisher ready to play midwife to the next blockbuster. Book 1, One Boy, No Water, was published in September 2012, the last of the three titles in JFP’s debut year. 2014, year three, will see eighteen.
Like most beginnings, it’s been a journey filled with growing pains. Based in Utah, JFP did get a few books stocked at local Barnes & Noble bookstores, hosted a few book signings, set-up a blog tour, created a book trailer, submitted One Boy, No Water for an American Book Award, and technically, the Niuhi Shark Saga is available world-wide. But inherently magical promises of catalog distribution aside, my core target audience is still in the middle of the Pacific ocean several thousands of miles away.
It all looked easier on paper.
On my own the best I could do was send a few copies to Hawaiian school libraries and folks back home that I thought might like it enough to recommend it to friends. Overworked, underappreciated, and focused on their next titles, JFP’s attention was elsewhere. To be fair, this kind of debut author/publisher experience isn’t unusual regardless of whether you’re with a new small press or NY Big 6. Go forth and harness the power of social marketing, I was told.
Like a good soldier, I spent almost two years social media marketing like mad, building relationships with readers with smart phones and Facebook accounts, blogging about Hawaiian culture, books, and how I often felt like a fish out of water living so far from my island home. I met a lot of amazing people and had a few opportunities come my way, but it was soon painfully obvious that while having a social media platform is an essential connection with fans, if you’re unknown it’s not the mechanism for creating an MG/YA fanbase. Any school interest I raised left educators scratching their heads because outside of Hawaii, Pidgin has no place to roost.
When I heard from other ex-pat Hawaiians that their kids asked parents and grandparents to read the Pidgin parts to them, that kids stumbled over common Pidgin words and phrases, and worse, that some gave up, I knew I had to make a change. Adults who didn’t speak Pidgin had no problem; they easily got into Pidgin’s rhythms and figured out meaning from context. The kids who were stronger readers stuck with it, liking the characters and plot, eagerly begging me for the next in the series.
It wasn’t the story. It was the language.
When I wrote book 2, One Shark, No Swim, I cut most of the Pidgin. There’re a few words and phrases sprinkled throughout the dialogue, but nothing like what was in One Boy, No Water. JFP is publishing One Shark, No Swim on September 21, 2013. Early reviewers like it; almost no one misses the Pidgin.
I do, a little. After all, it was the I-hate-reading kid who seldom saw his authentic island lifestyle or characters like himself in the media that I was reaching out to with the series. But while I dream for a living, I’m pretty practical at my core.
While I was beating the bushes trying to figure out how to market the Niuhi Shark Saga on a shoestring, JFP was busily working like beavers in a log jam to even out the kinks in their distribution channels. They recently inked a deal with IPG, leading to new and improved marketing plans that include re-launching their backlist starting in January 2014.
You gotta love the can-do attitude of start-ups. Never underestimate the transformative power of espresso and interns.
With new distribution in place, JFP is giving me another chance to get it right. One Boy, No Water is getting a second edition make-over with English that sparkles with propriety and nary a da kine or get plenny fish in sight.
After its Pidgin-ectomy, the Niuhi Shark Saga will still be a series set in authentic Hawaii with people who do more than tend bars and wear something other than Hollywood’s coconut bras and cellophane grass skirts. Perhaps unburdened by Pidgin the story of a boy who’s allergic to water and sharks that walk among men will finally soar high enough that reluctant readers surfing at Waimea Bay will notice. As any fisherman will tell you, it’s all about the bait.
Lehua Parker is originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools and Brigham Young University. In addition to writing award-winning short fiction, poetry, and plays, she is the author of the Pacific literature MG/YA series the Niuhi Shark Saga published by Jolly Fish Press. One Boy, No Water and One Shark, No Swim are available now, book 3, One Fight, No Fist will be published in 2014.
So far Lehua has been a live television director, a school teacher, a courseware manager, an instructional designer, a sports coach, a theater critic, a SCUBA instructor, a playwright, a web designer, a book editor, a mother, and a wife. She currently lives in Utah with her husband, two children, three cats, two dogs, six horses, and assorted chickens. During the snowy Utah winters she dreams about the beach.