Amazon taps Cary author for 'breakthrough' project

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

Cheryl Walniuk, pen name Rysa Walker, beat out about 10,000 other contestants in an Amazon contest.

ANDREW KENNEY — akenney@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Amazon wants to be more than an online store – it wants to create and publish some of the content it sells. So the multi-billion dollar corporation has put its might each year into a search for a great undiscovered novelist, screening some 10,000 manuscripts for a new star who will draw attention to the company’s expanding creative efforts.

This year, they found a Cary resident. The grand prize winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award lives on a cul-de-sac in a typical suburban neighborhood. At 50, Cheryl Walniuk, pen name Rysa Walker, is a first-time novelist, a teacher and a mother of three.

She already has secured a $50,000 advance and a contract with Amazon’s new publishing arm. That’s reward enough, says Walniuk, for a woman who grew up with her books and her cattle on a Florida ranch. But there’s that other alluring possibility, too – that maybe “Timebound” will be the next young-adult novel to sneak into briefcases and backpacks.

Publishers Weekly was not the first reviewer to draw a connection between Kate, the time-traveling heroine of “Timebound,” and the now-omnipresent character Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.”

“I’m beginning to think a little bit more about it,” Walniuk said. “People are interviewing me, and of course, there’s my sister. She’s saying it’s going to be the next ‘Hunger Games,’ and there’s going to be a movie ... and she’s been right so far, so I’m starting to get a little nervous.”

The attention’s pouring on quickly now, but “Timebound” was a decade’s work. Walniuk is a night owl, but she writes at midday, between the kids’ school hours and her own work at the U.S. Agency for International Development and, later, as an online lecturer at the University of Maryland.

“Timebound” is a century-hopping story, following Kate as she tries to restore the reality she knew by traveling to the Chicago “World’s Fair” of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition.

The novel’s a far cry from Walniuk’s last manuscript – a grad-school dissertation on women’s suffrage – but the author drew on the same research expertise as she blended timelines. It also echoes the countless quick-reading books that shaped her own childhood reading, from Steven King to the romance of Barbara Cartland and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour.The project sprang from a simple love of the act of writing, but the possibility of publication sank in as Walniuk neared completion last year. So she began to pitch the book.

Like so many unread pages, it landed with a thud before hit-hungry agents.

“As soon as they heard I’d (previously) written something academic, the doors slammed. I think they were expecting regression analysis or something,” the author recalled.

Spurned, she turned to self-publishing. It’s a dead-end for many aspiring authors, but Walniuk managed to place her novel in front of some of the voracious reading communities that have formed around sites like Goodreads and Amazon.

Word of mouth works

There was the British blogger who spread the word to his legions of friends, and the group of New Zealand teenagers who fell for the book. Walniuk stoked the fire by sending out copies of her printed run of 75 for review by influential amateurs, and she offered the e-book for free at times.

She sold a few hundred copies, and she managed to give away 6,000, racking up about 1,500 reviews on Goodreads. This kind of spread would be unattainable just a few years ago for an unpublished author, and it proved essential in the Amazon contest.

Walniuk’s submission first survived the brutal first-round winnowing, which sliced away about 8,000 of the manuscripts in February. Then it was among the 500, and the 25, and then the five finalists selected by Amazon Publishing’s editors. From there, it went to a week of online voting – Walniuk’s speciality.

“I come from a long line of Southern politicians. If they know nothing else, they know how to get out the vote,” she said. “Once they knew there was an election involved – oh my goodness. My mom was pulling out email lists. My sister-in-law sent it to everybody she’s ever had contact with.”

The big announcement came last Saturday night at a ceremony in Seattle. Amazon also will award money and contracts to four other contestants. Together, they’re the sixth group of winners since 2008.

Past winners have found success and continue to publish – but none have become blockbusters. Gregory Hill, a 2011 winner, doubts he’ll become a full-time author. But his book, “East of Denver,” has sold well enough to justify his advance, and put him on a better track, he said.

“Now I’m confident that my next book will get published,” said the self-effacing author. “Before, you’re anonymous, you’re a nobody. Now, I can put this on my resume and say, ‘Look at me, I did something.’ ”

In previous years, Amazon has contracted out publication to other companies. This year, Amazon will print the books itself, testing its new model. And that vested interest, Walniuk hopes, will put her book in plenty of hands and Kindles this October.

The sequels, of course, are in the works.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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