CORRECTION: This story was updated Monday, Sept. 30, 2019, at 6 p.m. to correct the spelling of Jan Dearman's name. A previous version of the story inadvertently referred to Dearman as Jean.
Chattanooga-area authorsView 24 Photos
They may never dominate the best-seller lists the way James Patterson and Delia Owens do, but several regional authors say revenue is not the only source of pride when publishing a book.
"There is apparently little honor and even less money in writing books," says novelist Wally Avett of Murphy, North Carolina. "But it's satisfaction to hold a book with your name on the cover."
Avett, who describes himself as "an old retired newspaperman and writer" has written four novels: "Murder in Caney Fork" and "Last Bigfoot in Dixie," published by BelleBooks of Memphis, and "Coosa Flyer" and "Rebel Bushwhacker," published by Argus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
He found success with the regional publishers "after years of rejection by agents and publishers in New York," he says.
Statista.com reports that more than 675 million print books were sold in the United States last year, netting the U.S. book publishing industry $26 billion. Even relatively new book formats, such as e-books and audiobooks, bring in billions of dollars in revenue each year, according to the site.
"Everyone from authors to publishers to booksellers is cashing in on the status of books as a staple of everyday life for people around the world, and companies like Amazon are vying to establish themselves in many different segments of the industry," analyst Amy Watson wrote in the Statista report.
Star Lowe, owner of independent bookstore Star Line Books on Market Street, says she sees a constant stream of local writers looking to get their books on her shelves. She has partnered with Vermont-based DartFrog Books, which curates books for a network of 70 bookstores, and she recently introduced a consignment fee of $25 for consideration of certain self-published books. Otherwise, the number of requests from authors can be overwhelming.
"I'm using [DartFrog] to vet. This helps us open it back up to the masses because they won't stop coming," she says.
The consignment policy also requires the titles to go out the door, not just sit on the shelf. "It's just like books by any of the traditionally published authors," Lowe says. "If they don't sell, they go back."
The greater Chattanooga area has produced a handful of celebrated authors in various genres.
Before announcing her retirement this past February, Lurlene McDaniel generated more than 70 young-adult books. Her inspirational stories of teens and preteens facing life-threatening illness appeared on best-seller lists and picked up multiple awards over McDaniel's 34-year career. A 2003 release, "Six Months To Live," has been placed in a literary time capsule at the Library of Congress, to be opened in 2089.
Chattanooga native Avery Duff co-wrote a screenplay for the heist film "Takers" before turning his attention to novels, gaining notice for the legal thriller "Beach Lawyer." He completed its sequel, "The Boardwalk Trust," before his death in March of this year.
Fiction writer Jamie Quatro's debut story collection, "I Want To Show You More," was a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013 and an Oprah magazine summer reading pick, among other honors. She published her first novel, "Fire Sermon," in 2018.
Cherie Priest, a Southern Adventist University graduate who now lives in Seattle, has multiple titles to her credit but is perhaps best-known for the 2009 science-fiction novel "Boneshaker." It was nominated for two of the genre's highest honors, the Nebula Award and Hugo Award, and won other literary prizes.
Rachel Held Evans, who died in May at age 37, became a leading progressive Christian voice through her best-selling books, which included "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," "Searching for Sunday" and "Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again."
Other up-and-coming writers have garnered book deals.
Chattanooga-based young-adult author Dave Connis has released two books through traditional publishers: "The Temptation of Adam," through Sky Pony Press, and "Suggested Reading," through Harper Collins imprint Katherine Tegen, the same imprint responsible for the popular Divergent series.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate Hannah Rials of Maryville, Tennessee, was still in high school when she interned at Audrey Press in New York and pitched a manuscript about teenage vampires to her boss. Owner Valarie Budayr used Rials' "Ascension" to create a young-adult arm, Aletha Press. Rials followed up with "Clandestine." Both titles have won literary awards. A final installment of the trilogy is due soon.
Last year, Carol Opalinski signed contracts for five romance books — two with Harlequin and three with Entangled, a romance digital line with Macmillan. Opalinski, who writes under the pen name Carrie Nichols, was to receive an advance in the thousands of dollars and royalties from sales, she told the Times Free Press at the time.
Meredith Russo reportedly was offered a $100,000 book deal that led to her 2016 debut novel, "If I Was Your Girl." The story of a transgender teenager growing up in the South was named to multiple Book of the Year lists. Russo released a second YA novel, "Birthday," in May.
Self-publishing has created opportunities for even more writers, and not just the rookies.
Blair Howard, a retired journalist turned mystery writer, says he has sold more than 300,000 books since he began self-publishing. Until early in 2015, he produced "sweeping historical epics," he says, including the acclaimed "Chickamauga," one of five historical novels on a resume that includes 26 fiction and 36 nonfiction titles.
The Civil War-set "Chickamauga," his first novel, took him 25 years to write, he says. He eventually tired of the research necessary to the plot of historical novels and turned to mystery fiction. His central character, hard-boiled detective Harry Starke, has appeared in 14 novels, and counting, and has led to a spinoff series featuring Lt. Kate Gazzara.
With 30 years' experience as a journalist for newspapers, magazines and websites, Howard says he decided "it was about time I wrote something I like."
Age and experience aren't prerequisites for becoming a writer. Hannah Engelbrecht, who graduated from Grace Baptist Academy in May, wrote what would become her debut novel, "A Ray of Color," as her senior project.
"I wrote it as a way to prove to myself that I could in fact write a book that other people would read," she says of the young-adult novel. "I was barely 18 when I published it [through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing]."
Engelbrecht says she's slowly working on a second book: "Turns out college takes a lot of time away from writing."
For some writers, finding time to put words to paper is often a matter of discipline.
"I honestly was surprised what routine did for me as a writer," says Jess Neal Woods, whose debut novel, "The Process of Fraying," was published in January. "In my poetry, I've always been a pantser [as opposed to a plotter] without much of a plan, writing whenever I could or whenever something came to me.
"Writing a novel is different; it requires much more discipline, and I wasn't thrilled about that at first. Once I perfected a routine, writing, while not easy, came much easier for me. There were many days I ran out of hours before I ran out of scenes."
Woods says "The Process of Fraying," while a work of fiction, is loosely based on her great-grandmother's experiences battling mental illness and the social, religious and medical stigmas surrounding it during the 1930s and '40s. It was a semifinalist in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, she says, and has been well-received by mental health professionals, psychology professors and readers of historical fiction.
"I have been most humbled by those readers who reach out to share their stories with me and tell me that they found a little solace amid my pages," she says. "That's all a writer could ever hope for, really."
Contact Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6281.
Writers on writing
We heard from several Chattanooga-area writers when we put out a call to local authors. Here’s an excerpted conversation with some of them.
* How did you get started writing? “I have always liked to write since I was a kid, but I never had any hopes of writing and getting a book published. After I retired from working for the city of Chattanooga for 37 years, I started writing my memories and stories about growing up in Jackson County, Alabama, and posting them on Facebook. I gained a lot of followers from Facebook friends who could relate to my stories. I received a lot of encouragement to write a book. I took all my stories that I had written over a 10-year period and put them in a book.” — Rayburn C. Hall, author of the biography “Raised on Pinto Beans and Cornbread.”
* Why do you write? "For much of my life, I have been preoccupied by history and Scripture. I purposed to bring to light hidden truths, renewed truths and old truths. I endeavored for the enlightenment of the reader and the discomfort of those who question the biblical account of Genesis." — David Kiker, who wrote "Times Before Time" to silence those who contend the Book of Genesis can't be proven by history or science.
* Why do you write? “Because God has been so good to me my entire life, I wrote most of my books because I wanted to share his love and grace. My goal as I continue to write devotional books is to help others increase their trust in God’s omnipotence and omniscience, bringing peace in times of trial and heightening joy in his mercy, grace and love.” — Sherry Hoppe, whose books include several devotionals, an Elvis Presley biography and the story of her husband’s murder trial, “A Matter of Conscience: Redemption of a Hometown Hero, Bobby Hoppe.”
* What’s your writing process like? “Tedious! It involves a lot of note-keeping and research, periods of furious scribbling, a lot of quiet contemplation and considerable reworking and revision, time and time again. I tend to write directly to a laptop. Most of the time I book is spent revising and reworking.” — Maury Nicely, author of “Chattanooga Walking Tour & Historic Guide,” “East Tennessee Walking Tour & Historic Guide” and “Hoffa in Tennessee: The Chattanooga Trial That Brought Down an Icon.”
* What’s your writing process like? “Having worked in newspapers for years — deadlines amuse me — I learned to write quickly, without waiting for a muse to move me. I edited my novels, all based on true stories, and if you write four pages every morning before work, you’ll have a completed book in about three months, ready to go.” — Wally Avett, author of “Murder in Caney Fork,” “Last Bigfoot in Dixie,” “Coosa Flyer” and “Rebel Bushwhacker.”
* What has been the response to your book? “Nine years later, people are still buying the book. I still revel in using it as a tool to teach children in schools, after-school enrichment programs, clubs and sometimes grocery stores.” — Jennifer Crutchfield, author of the history book “Chattanooga Landmarks.”
* Do you make a living as a writer? “I do not live off writing alone. I work for Unum here in Chattanooga. I do, however, make enough money to pay for some date nights and to buy me stuff I do not really need.” — Robert Bradford, author of the murder mystery “Extraordinary Secrets” and the teen drama “Above the Pines.”
* What do you like about writing? “I love imagery. It is my favorite thing about reading and writing. I love the way words play together to form images, engage senses and create emotion. I spend entire mornings sometimes on pieces of imagery.” — Jessica Woods, author of the historical novel “The Process of Fraying.”
* What do you dislike about writing? “… the publishing world’s attitude that your writing has to be established. Only few first novels are published. Most publishers want you to have an agent; most agents want you to be established. It is almost an exclusive world of who you are and who you know. I guess that is why more authors are going to e-books and online publishing.” — Jan W. Brown, author of the novels “The Ridge at Misty Meadow” and “Miller’s Legacy.”
* What do you like/dislike about writing? “I love looking at a blank piece of paper and knowing I can write anything I want. I hate looking at a blank piece of paper and wondering what to write about.” — K.B. Ballentine, whose six collections of poetry have won awards and cash prizes; her latest is “The Light Tears Loose.”
* Do you make a living as a writer? “Yes, a very good living.” — Blair Howard, author of more than 60 fiction and nonfiction titles, including the Harry Starke Series and the Lt. Kate Gazzara Series.
* Your publishing route? Beacon Publishing Group … is a traditional publisher — neither my ego nor pocketbook will allow for self-publishing.” — Jan Dearman, author of the historical novel “River Sisters: The Giver” and its upcoming sequel, “River Sisters: The Receiver.”
* Any surprises in writing or publishing? “I’m surprised by people who want to be writers but don’t like to read. I’m also surprised by how many people believe that being a writer will make them rich. Most writers make less than $8,000 a year from their books.” — Sybil Baker, who has written four works of fiction and “Immigration Essays,” about Chattanooga’s refugee population.
* Any surprises in writing or publishing? “Tenured history professors at a number of universities from Alabama to Virginia have been very kind to endorse my Civil War books. On the flip side, I have been surprised at how little publishers want to pay authors in terms of royalties. Some of the checks I have received would not be sufficient for a tip at a restaurant. Unless the author is a novelist or a Harvard professor, one should not expect to get rich writing history books.” — John Brinsfield, who has written or co-written 10 nonfiction history books since 1983 as a means “to preserve the stories of brave soldiers who were also men or women of God.”
* What’s next? “A few months ago, a Christian friend and producer who has read my books told me we need to make a movie of your amazing life and title it ‘Chattanooga Street Kid.’ … As a starting point, they want me to write a book … combining interesting details from my three autobiographical books that a scriptwriter can develop a good script from.” — Donald E. Palmer, author of three autobiographies, including “Memories of a Chattanooga Street Kid,” a regional best-seller when it was released in 2001.
* Any advice for other writers? “If you want to write, you can. I wrote my books as a senior in high school. I was barely 18 when I published it on Amazon. You are not too young, inexperienced or whatever you think is holding you back. You can write and publish your first book whether you’re 15 or 115.” — Hannah Engelbrecht, author of young-adult novel “A Ray of Color.”