For as long as I've been an author, I've heard from the book publishing industry that Latino books don't sell. Oh, really? Simone Elkeles begs to differ. Her Perfect Chemistry trilogy is a runaway New York Times bestselling series and all the rage for Hispanic teens all over the country.
I had the opportunity to ask Elkeles about her success and what has led to it.
Simone, you simply rock! I'm so inspired how you've connected with Latino and mainstream readers and bridged the gap.
Thank you SO MUCH for interviewing me, Jeff!
Tell us how the Perfect Chemistry trilogy came about?
My friend Eduardo came over to my house and said he felt like people looked down on him because he’s Mexican. It bothered me that he felt people judged him because of the color of his skin and his Mexican heritage. I wanted to write a book where Mexican teens had pride in their Mexican heritage and embraced it – almost wore it like a badge of honor. Fairfield (the setting for Perfect Chemistry) is loosely based off of a high school next to where I grew up. There is a large Latino community on one side of the tracks (yes, there are literally train tracks separating the two sides) and a very wealthy community with people living in mansions on Lake Michigan on the other side. When I heard that suburban gangs in the area were on the rise, I also wanted to explore what it would be like for someone from one side of the town to fall for someone on the other side. I do love exploring love stories that have cultures clashing. Once I started researching suburban gangs (which are very different than city gangs), it was eye-opening. I didn’t know how much honor and loyalty to family and community are tied into gang affiliation, especially in the Latino gang culture. Some of the kids in gangs I interviewed have seen more violence, death, drug trafficking and crime than anyone should see in their lifetime. They live not knowing if they’ll survive another day, and some don’t even care. I’ve met really good kids who are stuck in bad situations. They want to get out and live a clean, gang-free life, but don’t know how or don’t think there’s another way to live. My heart goes out to those kids. That part of it makes me want to write about boys like Alex, Carlos, and Luis Fuentes.
How well has the series done exactly in terms of sales?
The entire series hit the NY Times Bestseller List in the series category and Rules of Attraction and Chain Reaction also hit the NY Times and USA Today individual Bestseller Lists. Perfect Chemistry continues to sell the best of all three, even though it’s been almost 5 years since it was released. It is also in fifteen different languages around the world, which is amazing!
Are eBooks a big part of that?
Ebooks are starting to be a big chunk of sales, although from what I am told the majority of teens still buy traditional hardcover and paperback books. I know schools and libraries buy a ton of print copies, but the are also buying ebooks as well. Times are definitely changing!
What is your writing process and schedule like? Do you outline? Do you rewrite?
I wish I had a schedule! I’m a mom, so I write when my kids are in school or when the entire family (including my two crazy dogs) are asleep. I need it to be completely quiet when I write. Sometimes I’ll wake up at 5:00am to write, before everyone wakes up. I do not outline, but I envy people who can. I ABSOLUTELY rewrite. More than once I’ve trashed almost an entire book and started over, only salvaging a few scenes for the final draft. I guess that’s just my “process,” but it’s so stressful!
Your books took off. Why do you think that is?
Teens tell me that my books seem “real” to them- when they read them they feel like they’re living through the characters and they get so sucked into the story they can’t stop reading. (I’ve heard from teens who say they hate to read that Perfect Chemistry was the first book they ever finished). I think teens who have read Perfect Chemistry told their friends to read it and it really was word-of-mouth. When people love a book, they want to talk about it so they share it.
What did you do to get the word out?
I am constantly looking for new and innovative ways to connect with teens and get them interested in reading. The first big thing I did was the movie-style book trailer, which I did for Rules of Attraction and Chain Reaction. If you haven’t seen them, you can check them out on my YouTube channel. My newest project is the reality-style mini web series that I’ve done for Wild Cards. There are four episodes which all take place before the book. The last episode ends on a hook, so to find out what happens next, you have to READ THE BOOK! Not only that, my characters are also on twitter and social media platforms. They’ve done “tweet wars,” competing to see who can get the most followers. It’s a ton of fun and I think my fans love that they’re actually interacting with my characters! You can watch the episodes and connect with the characters all through the Wild Cards website.
In edition to the book trailers and putting my characters on social media, I also try to be EVERYWHERE! I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I love interacting with my fans. I do a lot of school visits and talk to teens about my journey into writing and how I was a reluctant reader as a teen.
I created a poster after the Chain Reaction video. It’s an amazing shot of the three Fuentes brothers walking towards the camera. Girls go CRAZY for this poster! I’ve actually had them rush the stage when I was done speaking to get their hands on these posters. I’ve probably given out 10,000. Now, they’re hanging in schools, libraries and houses across America. If you’re curious, you can check out the posters on my website.
Out of all the things you tried to do, in terms of promotion, what didn't work that you wouldn't try again?
I hired a big publicity firm and only got one very small TV interview and a couple of small articles in local papers. I don’t think I would do that again. I don’t know if there’s anything that was such a terrible fail that I regret doing it. I always learn as I go and I hope that the next thing I do will be an even bigger success than the last.
People say that Latinos don't support their own books and movies. Do you think this is true? If so or if not, why?
I’ve never heard that! I have tons of Latino fans that have specifically emailed me to thank me for writing a book they can relate to! I actually received a moving email from a teacher in NJ that I went to visit her and two of her male “at risk” students that had fallen in love with my books. Those boys showed me what life was like for them and a lot of what I learned went into Chain Reaction. Some Latino fans say after reading my Perfect Chemistry series, they’re proud call themselves Mexican.
So many authors are indie publishing now. Is that something you'd do?
Publishing is constantly changing and moving forward. I blink and there’s something new in the industry. I am not publishing indie right now, but I might in the future. I never say never.
You've created some pretty extensive movie/book trailers? Any thought of bringing the story to the small or large screen? What about a webseries?
I would LOVE to have my books turned into movies! I actually have an agent in Hollywood who is currently pitching my books as movies.
What's the next book in the series about?
Wild Cards (October 1, 2013), is the first book in a new series for me. Wild Cards is about a boy who used to be a big American football prodigy before his mom died. He stopped playing because of the memories he has of his mom watching him play. It hurts him too much. He stops taking life seriously and has become a prankster and a bad boy. He gets kicked out of boarding school and has to move into his young stepmother’s childhood home. Once there, he meets Ashtyn Parker, the girl kicker on the football team. She can’t stand Derek and the way he doesn’t take life seriously. When her boyfriend quits the football team, the only one to save the team is Derek, a boy who wants nothing to do with football or Ashtyn. It’s a very hot and steamy novel and I loved writing Derek and Ashtyn’s story!