Wheaton resident Joanne Zienty learned about the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project just days before the early January deadline. In the bitter cold of this past winter, she rushed to the Wheaton Public Library, which already had her debut novel on its shelves, to ask that "The Things We Save" be nominated for the project.
But the library staff member handling the matter was out sick. Although the library offered her the staff person's phone number, Zienty drove home feeling down. A lost opportunity, she thought. The deadline was the next day.
If you goWhat: Joanne Zienty author visit
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 18
Where: Wheaton Public Library, 225 N. Cross St., Wheaton
Cost: Free; copies of Zienty's book will be for sale
Info: (630) 668-1374 or wheatonlibrary.org
But then Zienty had another thought.
"I'm a librarian. Why can't I nominate myself?" said Zienty, a library media specialist in an elementary school in Des Plaines. "I strongly believe my writing is good."
A committee of 22 librarians from across the state agreed with Zienty's assessment of her work. They chose her adult novel out of 103 entrees, all nominated by librarians, to be the winner of the first Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author contest.
"It was a very validating experience," Zienty said. "It supported my own opinion of my work. To have complete strangers tell me this, it was a thrill."
Christine Cigler, a member of the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author committee and manager of public relations and outreach at Fox Valley Public Library District, summed up the judges' comments on Zienty's work.
"Judges commented that 'The Things We Save' was an emotional, haunting family saga that captured the sights and sounds of a working class South Side Chicago neighborhood. They describe the characters as strongly developed, complex and believable. Several of the judges mentioned that they thought it would be a good choice for a book club, particularly citing a satisfying resolution and riveting conclusion."
Zienty said that since the announcement of her win was made at a Reaching Across Illinois Libraries meeting in April in Burr Ridge, sales for her self-published work have picked up.
"It's been wonderful," she said. "Knowing that people are reading my work and enjoying it."
Readership and sales are likely to increase even more because, as the contest winner, Zienty will be given opportunities throughout the year to promote her book in Illinois libraries. Her first presentation begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, in the Wheaton Public Library, 225 N. Cross St., Wheaton. Other libraries are scheduling presentations for the fall and winter.
Libraries flex muscle
While Illinois libraries promote Zienty's novel, they also are flexing their own marketing muscle. The Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project was born after brand expert David Vinjamuri, a professor at New York University, challenged the American Library Association last year to come up with a project to prove libraries' importance in influencing readers' choice of material.
In an era of self-publishing and eBooks, publishers have largely discounted the role of libraries by refusing to sell them eBooks or charging them many times more than they would charge other consumers and limiting the number of times they can lend them.
Sue Wilsey, a member of the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author committee and marketing and publicity supervisor at the Niles Public Library District, said that according to Vinjamuri, some publishers have charged libraries $70 or more for eBooks that consumers could purchase for $10 or less.
"Our hope is that the major publishers can take notice of librarians' influence and more reasonably see our value," she said.
Taking up Vinjamuri's challenge, librarians in Reaching Across Illinois Libraries and the Illinois Library Association decided work together to prove their marketing power to publishers by lifting an obscure, self-published author to success.
"We can do this," Cigler remembers one of the librarians saying. "It just gained momentum."
A group of eight librarians spearheading the project put together the contest. They had gained a fair number of nominations when an article about the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Project in the Chicago Tribune on New Year's Day helped double the number of entries, Cigler said.
In a little more than two months, about 70 libraries submitted the 103 nominations. Nominations were narrowed to the top 15 and then the top three. In addition to Zienty, the top three included Rick Polad of Carol Stream, nominated by Aurora University's Phillips Library for "Change of Address," and Mary Hutchings Reed of Chicago, nominated by Mount Prospect Public Library for "Warming Up."
Always a writer
A writer since she was a child, Zienty was in fifth grade when she completed her first 70-page novel -- an homage to Walter Farley's Black Stallion series that she loved. She had her first play, a Thanksgiving melodrama, produced on the stage of her elementary school on the South Side of Chicago.
She has continued writing and has the beginnings of novels tucked way for possible future development. "The Things We Save" was inspired by her fascination with the memorabilia people keep to remind them of past events or people in their lives.
"Holding onto those things can be good because it can keep you grounded to your memories," Zienty said. "But it can also be harmful if those items are associated with bad memories and you keep them to ward off relationships."
Claire Sokol, the main character in Zienty's book, hangs onto those bad memories. The broken 45 rpm record held together with adhesive tape, the fading stack of Polaroids, the cobalt blue perfume bottle and braid of human hair are among the items Claire keeps in an old Marshall Field's gift box.
They tell the tale of a family that fell apart and remind Claire of why she is estranged from her father. The struggle in the novel is whether what remains can be put back together.
Zienty credits Molly Ramanujan at the University of Chicago with teaching her the importance of focusing on objects as a way to make her world come alive to the reader. She said Ray Bradbury also influenced her by emphasizing the need for sensory language to make the reader see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel.
"If you can do that, you can make them believe they are there," she said.
Zienty spent six years writing her book and tried to market it the traditional route. She sent queries to literary agents; some showed an interest but never felt the work was right for them.
Publishers seemed more interested in marketing books by celebrity authors than finding the best writing, she said. When she heard that Nicole Polizzi, better known as "Snooki" on the TV reality series "Jersey Shore," had a publishing contract, Zienty decided she'd had enough. By late 2011, she decided she would publish her work for free on Amazon.com's self-publishing wing.
"I pushed the upload button and the rest is history," she said.
Ah, but finding readers can be harder. Zienty said one of her two young adult daughters didn't read her book until she won the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author contest. Her win also prompted teachers in her school to purchase her book and students to become interested in how they too can become published authors.
Her book has received complimentary reviews, and a private book club invited her to come when members discussed her novel.
"It was amazing to listen to them and their comments and insights into my characters," she said. "Did I get my point across (in the novel)? I did."
Zienty now is working on her second novel -- a young adult adventure set in the future in which water has become a scarce and precious resource.
The Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author committee has been asked to write a book on their project and give a presentation at the upcoming American Library Association conference at the end of June.
Committee members expect to have another Illinois contest next year but haven't nailed down the details yet. Right now, they're working on making Zienty famous. Cigler said Zienty is willing and able to give presentations on her work.
"We have been absolutely delighted working with Joanne," she said.