The Miracle of the Purple Unicorn

Unicorns are magic, so how can a book about them not be magic in its own way? And if the unicorns are purple, it has to be even more special. This will show the wonderful possibilities that are now available to writers and publishers.

This is a story about a joke comment, then a crazy idea, then a group of people who wanted to make that idea happen—and teamwork, the full support of a group of dedicated writers, an editor, an artist, and a publisher.

And a little magic.

And a scholarship.

For more than a decade, Rebecca Moesta and I have given lectures and workshops on professionalism for the writer. One of the things we teach is that a writer must always deliver his or her best work. You are not allowed to “phone it in,” no matter what the assignment.  Even if you get asked to do a story for, say, a silly anthology about purple unicorns—if you accept the assignment, you cannot blow it off. You have to do the best damned purple unicorn story you possibly can.

We’ve given that talk more than a hundred times. Every once in a while, a writing student will come up to us jokingly and offer to write a purple unicorn story, just to prove it can be done. But, no, we weren’t really intending to put together an anthology about purple unicorns. Not then.

Rebecca and I have also run the Superstars Writing Seminars for the past six years, and last February in Colorado Springs, Rebecca and I gave our usual lecture, with the same purple unicorn anecdote. Again, some of our students jokingly suggested that they were going to write a purple unicorn story someday. But this time Lisa Mangum was in the audience, an editor for Shadow Mountain Books. She loved the idea and approached me afterward. “Why don’t we really do this? A purple unicorn anthology?” She volunteered her services as editor, to read and select all the submissions.

This time, we couldn’t say No.

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What changed? One thing—Rebecca and I now have our own publishing company, WordFire Press. And if we’re the publishers, we can do whatever books we want, dammit.

After brainstorming with Lisa Mangum, we decided to do the purple unicorn anthology. (Yes, we know, “anthologies don’t sell,” blah, blah, blah.) Lisa would donate her services as editor, with submissions to be drawn from among the nearly 200 past and present alumni of the Superstars Writing Seminars. WordFire Press would publish the book, and all profits would go into a scholarship fund to bring a disadvantaged student to the next Superstars.

And that just got the ball started. Time was short. All the members of the Superstars “tribe” got behind the project and dove into writing their stories, which they agreed to donate to the anthology and the scholarship fund. Then word got out. When New York Times bestselling authors Todd J. McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye heard about the project, they each donated a new story to add star power to the table of contents. Todd McCaffrey, in fact, had so much fun that he wrote two stories, one to open the book and one to close it.

But wait … did someone say Unicorn? You can’t say unicorn without saying Peter S. Beagle, author of the phenomenal classic The Last Unicorn.  And, yes, Peter S. Beagle agreed to give us a story for the Purple Unicorn book!

But there’s more. One of our main instructors at Superstars is New York Times bestselling author and award-winning artist James A. Owen. So I asked James if he would do the cover art for the anthology. (Ridiculously crazy, of course, but you never know unless you ask.) He said yes.  Even better than that—James wanted to wait to do the cover art until he could read all of the stories, because he intended to include an image from every story in the wrap-around cover art.

Oh, and he also agreed to design the book cover as well.

Lisa suggested the title One Horn to Rule Them All. We all loved it.

Yes, that’s all cool and exciting, but it’s only the first part of the miracle. WordFire had two major shows coming up, DragonCon in Atlanta (75,000 people) at the end of August and Salt Lake City Comic Con (100,000 people) the following weekend. We had a lot of fans attending both, and a lot of Superstars tribe members at both shows, and Peter S. Beagle would be at the Salt Lake show in person to sign copies! Both shows were tremendous opportunities to sell copies of the book and raise money for the Superstars scholarship. We didn’t want to miss those deadlines—so it was all hands on deck!

But Lisa wasn’t even receiving the story submissions for her consideration until July 15. That meant we had one month for the editor to read through the slushpile, make her choices, do her editing, and then WordFire had to put the files through our proofing team, our formatting and production process. James Owen had to read every story and then do his amazing wraparound cover from scratch, incorporating elements from every single story.

Now that’s a miracle.  Lisa read through the stack of manuscripts, made her choices, worked directly with the story authors for any rewrites or revisions (which they had to do within a day or two). Because WordFire is a new-model publisher using cutting-edge technologies that simply weren’t available to traditional publishers a few years ago, we had ways to accomplish book production that common wisdom says is simply not possible.

We did it.

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Many members of our WordFire Press team are also past attendees of Superstars, so they had a double incentive, not only to prove that WordFire could meet the impossible deadline, but also to help out the scholarship fund.  Keith Olexa and the proofing teams took the manuscript and immediately started combing through it for typos. I wrote an introduction for the book, explaining the whole crazy idea. Quincy J. Allen did the text formatting and a very snazzy design for print and eBooks. Vivian Trask, our Production Team leader, was the air-traffic controller to make sure every step happened on schedule. James Owen did indeed read all the stories and managed to include an image from every single one in his cover art.

Once Quincy finished the page layout, we had the page count and the spine width, and James Own adjusted the cover layout accordingly. Then the very moment all the pieces came together, James Sams uploaded the eBooks on all platforms and submitted the print version to the printer, reviewed the electronic proof as soon as it was available, did a few necessary fixes, and then pushed the green button. David Boop did the specialized task of getting One Horn to Rule Them All up in the iBooks store.

We ordered cases of the books to be delivered in time for DragonCon, and more cases of the books for Salt Lake City Comic Con the following week. And we did it.

Let me go over those dates again:  The editor received the slushpile submissions on July 15.  We had finished, printed copies on sale at our table at DragonCon on August 29.

And if that’s not enough of a miracle—with all of our tribe members talking about One Horn to Rule Them All at the conventions and helping us sell, posting on their blogs and social media, we made enough profit in only two weekends to fund TWO Superstars Scholarships.  Both winners—Chris Baxter and Joy Dawn Johnson—will be attending Superstars this week, with their attendance paid for by sales of the Purple Unicorn Anthology.

There’s magic in those purple unicorns—I knew it!

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