Michelle Witte has an unusual business model: she is asking her community in Centerville, Utah ("about 10 minutes north of Salt Lake City," she said), to help her make her children's bookstore, Fire Petal Books, a success... and a reality.
She has picked out the space, she knows where she wants to hold her teen and tween writing workshops, she knows where the bookshelves will go. (You can take a virtual tour of the future Fire Petal Books.) But she does not yet have the funds to stock the shelves and open the doors. The community, however, is indeed coming together to help her realize her dream. Not just the Centerville community, but the social media nation of booklovers. And it's all because of Twitter.
Witte (pronounced "witty") began her fundraising efforts with KickStarter ("a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers," as its Web site explains), but, she said, "It wasn't working." Then one of her Twitter friends suggested she hold an auction and donated the first item: a one-on-one phone manuscript critique. That Twitter friend is Molly O'Neill, assistant editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children's Books. "Children's books has this recent history of auction success, the Robert's Snow [for Cancer's Cure] auction, and around Christmastime there was another auction to raise money for schools that had lost their budget for book buying. A lot of editors and agents had offered to give manuscript critiques. I sent [Michelle] a link to that auction and said, 'What about this?' and she ran with it," O'Neill said. "It's kind of the stone soup thing: 'I've got some carrots!' That give-and-take is the Internet and social media at its best."
Witte "met" O'Neill when she started on Twitter as a way of connecting her Utah base with other editors and agents in publishing, who tended to be based on the coasts. (The two have never met in person.) Witte also joined YA LitChat (#YALitChat on Twitter), which has some 900 members--agents, editors and mostly YA writers, both published and aspiring. Witte herself is working on a YA novel. "Every Wednesday night they hold a LitChat at 7 p.m. my time, 9 p.m. Eastern, and I've gotten to know a lot of people through these different venues. It's snowballing," Witte said. "It started with just a few people. I announced on Twitter I wanted to open a bookstore. Sara Zarr started tweeting about it, others started commenting and it went from there." Zarr, a fellow Utah resident, also contributed a critique for the cause.
Neil Gaiman had also been following Witte on Twitter--"I have no idea why," she admited. "I direct-messaged him, and he volunteered an autographed copy of Beowulf: The Script Book." The book is based on the 2007 film Beowulf, cowritten by Gaiman and Roger Avary. Fellow Utah resident Shannon Hale donated an autographed set of her Bayern series (Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets and Forest Born), and Witte recently met author Chris Cleave at a signing in Provo, Utah, and he contributed an autographed copy of his Little Bee for the auction. YA author Julie Wright donated sponsorship of a teenager to the 2010 Teen Writers' Conference "Living the Writer's Legacy" in Ogden, Utah, and the conference organizers got wind of Wright's generosity and also decided to sponsor a teen.
Witte will be accepting bids until Saturday, March 20, at 11:59 p.m. EST. Check out the complete list of auction items, and follow her progress on Twitter (@firepetalbooks) or join her Fire Petal Books fan page on Facebook. On Monday, Witte announced that she's pushing back her anticipated bookstore opening to April 29, due to a bout with bronchitis: "She's not dying, just exhausted," Witte tweeted.--Jennifer M. Brown