Most authors dream of selling a book to a major publisher and cashing an advance on royalties. But that's never the end of the story, as Arlington author-illustrator Leonard Wells Kenyon has learned too well.
In December 2015, Publishers Weekly announced the sale of Kenyon's Halloween-themed debut picture book, This Book Is Not for Chickens!, to G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin. Nearly three years later, Penguin has canceled Kenyon's book, and he's running an unusual Kickstarter campaign to regain the rights to publish his work.
The problem is, as Kenyon explains in a phone interview, that he can't print Chickens without repaying the publisher's $20,000 advance, of which he received about half while going through the editorial process. (Most advances aren't paid in full until that process leads to "acceptance" or publication.)
"Because of the advance I'd received, the publisher now owns the printing rights and I think I have about a buck fifty left," he writes on his Kickstarter page. "Apparently they don't have a Lay-A-Way program."
The public seldom hears about book cancellations unless the author is a misbehaving celebrity or controversial political figure. Most writers don't openly discuss such disappointments, Kenyon acknowledges: "It's bad for business. It's bad for an author. I took a chance doing this, and I don't think it was hubris." Rather, he says, he's still "in love with" Chickens and wants to share it.
The book's protagonists are a literal chicken and "scaredy-cat" who trick-or-treat at the wrong house, where the owl homeowner gives them a "stupendously frightening" book that leads them through a series of escalating perils. Despite all the ghosties and ghoulies, Kenyon's stylized watercolor-and-ink drawings — "touched up digitally," he says — keep the mood whimsical; adults may be reminded of Edward Gorey.
Locals may know 40-year-old Kenyon as the illustrator of Wishes Are Medicine! How Make-A-Wish Gave Me Hope & Helped Me Heal, by 17-year-old Jamie Heath of Barre, published by Make-A-Wish Vermont in August. Working with Heath was "maybe what my soul needed," says Kenyon, calling her a "supercool kid."
For the most part, though, his output is darker, what he calls "whimsical funny horror." Among the books he's already illustrated under the name Lenny K. is How to Scare a Monster!, coauthored by Fright Night director Tom Holland.
The North Bennington native never studied art, he says; it's "always been a God-given talent. The writing stuff I had to work at." After years of trying to sell his novels via a literary agent, Kenyon heeded his schoolteacher wife's suggestion to write something for kids. He sent his drawings to Wernick & Pratt Agency and ended up with a picture-book deal.
But Penguin was in the process of merging with Random House, and the editor who acquired Kenyon's book eventually quit. "I was given to an editor who ... didn't share my vision," he recalled. "So the real heartbreak in the end is that I produced something I loved, and they did not."
Still, Kenyon has some kind words for Penguin's drawn-out editorial process: "They really sharpened my skill. I know the next children's book I do will be even better," he says. "I got paid a lot of money to learn a ton."
Paying back that money is another matter. With just $2,381 of his $22,000 goal pledged by 37 backers at press time, and less than a week to go, Kenyon admits he doesn't have high hopes for his campaign. The crowdfunding strategy, he suggests, is more likely "to work for authors who are already established, or people who want to invest money into getting it seen."
In consultation with an entertainment lawyer, Kenyon hopes now to self-publish Chickens as an ebook rather than regaining the print rights. He's preparing the manuscript for publication again — his way.
"I wanted to keep it dark and kind of spooky," Kenyon says. "Those were the things I loved as a kid growing up in the late '70s and '80s. I was able to finish it the way I wanted. That's the true end."