First Novels: Acquiring Minds
by: Martha Woodroof, NPR, December 13, 2013 7:12:00 am
The first in my series of posts on The First Novel Experience was called "The Romance of Agents." A couple of people wrote me after it was posted and asked if I was going to include in this series any stories of any writers who'd had a bad time with their books. I thought about it and decided no – at least not yet. As someone who's had her share of disappointments in these uncertain and confusing publishing times, it seems more useful – and encouraging – to tell stories of books that are having the kind of success authors dream of.
But I'm open to other thoughts, so feel free to leave them in the comments.
I'm calling this second post in the series "Acquiring Minds." It is, as you might have guessed, about first novels from the acquiring editor's point of view.
As in the series' first post, the novels referred to come from a list sent to me by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goodreads.
Publishing is, of course, a business. It has to make money.
If you're a writer and you'd like to read a well-written and engaging real-life publishing business story in which the hero endures ten years of poverty in order to write his first novel, then signs with a relatively unsung agent who then sells the novel for a whopping $665,000, then Keith Gessen's article "The Book On Publishing" is for you. It gives useful insight into novel publication by telling the backstory of Chad Harbach's first novel, The Art of Fielding. You can find Mr. Gessen's article in the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, or as a Kindle Single on Amazon (where it's called "Vanity Fair's How A Book Is Born: The Making Of The Art Of Fielding").
There's one sentence in the article that, to me, speaks eloquently to the beating heart of publishing as well as its bottom line. "Publishing houses," Gessen writes, "appear to be giant monoliths. In fact, in the end, they are the sum total of the judgment and taste of their individual editors ..."
Among those editorial tastes are those of Alison Callahan, who was an Executive Editor at Doubleday when she bought Erin Morgenstern's first novel, The Night Circus, a story of magic and young love set in a mysterious circus that arrives in the book's setting one day without warning. And as the title suggests, this mysterious circus is open only at night.
The Night Circus was the first novel ever submitted to Ms. Callahan by Richard Pine, an agent at InkWell Management. He sent it based on intuition, honed by the couple of times Alison had taken him out to lunch to talk books.
So what does Alison Callahan look for in a manuscript? She puts it this way:
The books that I tend to gravitate toward typically have a bit of an edge or a high-concept element of style or tone or storytelling. The best way I can describe my taste is that I like books that go off the beaten path...but you can still see the path. The Night Circus unapologetically plays with time, with actual magic and illusion and love.
Alison began reading the manuscript in her office, but soon decamped to the Random House cafeteria.
With The Night Circus, I knew from those first few chapters that [this] book was unlike any other first novel I had read. My heart started pounding, and every time the phone rang or my email chimed, I was annoyed to be pulled away from the pages, which is why I went to the cafeteria. Once the distractions were gone, I flew through the pages as fast as I could both because I was enthralled by the story, and propelled by the fear that someone else in another office in town was doing the same thing and would beat me to it.
Each publishing house, Alison Callahan says, works differently when it comes to acquiring books.
When I acquired the novel, I was an Executive Editor at Doubleday and no, I was not allowed to buy anything I wanted and I certainly didn't have a blank check. But I am rather reserved when it comes to acquiring novels, so when my boss saw how wild I was about it, we moved in a much quicker way than is typical when attempting to buy a fiction debut. At Doubleday, it is typical to have the publisher [in this case Bill Thomas of Doubleday] read it as well as an editor or two from the paperback division. The reads that came back were unanimously positive.
There was a ton of competition [for The Night Circus], but because we moved very quickly (and very aggressively), we had a jump on some of the other houses. I also spoke with the author at length about how much I was in love with her manuscript and she and I hit it off on the phone instantly. Sometimes, all the pieces line up perfectly.
Okay, that's pretty much that as far as the influence of Alison's Callahan's "judgment and taste." Now, it was on to serious business. Ms. Callahan says everyone at Doubleday knew the book was going to be pricey.
But we also knew that the sales potential was huge. These days, editors must appreciate a debut novel for not only its beautiful writing or creative storyline but also for its marketability and The Night Circus had it in spades. We gave the pages to our foreign rights director to gauge if she thought she could sell it in translation and she came back with a big number which we could incorporate into our profit & loss. She wound up selling it to nearly 30 publishers worldwide.
Publishing is not a business for the faint of heart. It is as subject to the vagaries of consumers as, say, software development or the fashion industry.
Doubleday found out through Mr. Pine that other houses were also pursuing The Night Circus. The book was heading into auction, when Ms. Callahan offered a "pre-empt," a publishing term for an offer from a publishing house that's so good it stops the book from going to auction.
About that looming auction, Ms. Callahan says:
We [Doubleday] didn't want to be in a competitive situation where the money would continue to creep higher and higher. We made a very generous offer, and when the agent said there was one other publisher nipping at our heels, about to make the very same pre-emptive offer, we upped ours substantially. My conversation with Erin is what tipped the scale in our favor.
The day we acquired the book was one of my happiest at Doubleday...followed closely by the afternoon we found out that she was going to debut on the New York Times Bestseller list at Number 2. The whole publication process was, if you'll indulge me, magical.
Okay, so how much did The Night Circus sell for? Nobody at either Doubleday or InkWell Management would talk money specifics — at least not to me. But Publisher's Marketplace, the industry's journal of money, reported The Night Circus went for a "major deal."
That means at least half a million dollars.
So, there was Doubleday, willing to stake at least $500,000 on an unpublished author.
Carol Rifka Brunt's first novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, was named one of the best books of the year by The Wall Street Journal, O: The Oprah Magazine, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Amazon.com one-sentences the novel's story as: "... a singular portrait of the late-'80s AIDS epidemic's transformation of a girl and her family."
Does that sound like a sure-fire bet to you? Or a gamble?
I asked Dial Press's Jennifer Smith – who championed and edited Wolves – how close book-buying feels to high-stakes gambling?
I'm not a big gambler, to be honest, but I imagine it's much the same. You put your chips down when you love a book, show your cards when you talk to the author and agent, and if it turns out they're not good enough, it can be a crushing blow. But when you win? It's such a great feeling. Even better than gambling, I imagine, because it lasts longer. Winning a book is just the beginning of a long journey to publication. It's the start of something really exciting.
Speaking of excitement, my next post will be about what it's like to sell your first novel from the author's point of view.
Before I finish this post, however, I want to go back for just a moment to InkWell Management's Richard Pine, who, when we talked, insisted on making the point that a lot of publishers' limited resources are dedicated to what he calls "house authors" who have dominated these resources for a long time. It was, he says, a thrilling experience [in the case of The Night Circus] to have a publishing house muster its personnel, dollars, imagination and enthusiasm, in a way that every author – not just every first-time author – dreams of.
I take this as encouragement for all novel writers. Speaking from personal experience, I hit my own soon-to-be published gold with the fourth novel I'd written and hustled. Was it worth it to write three that didn't sell? It was.