A Look Inside the Biz

Sometimes you come across miraculously insightful information where you least expect it. Like, in the pages of your Entertainment Weekly magazine.

I’ll explain.

Every writer I know—published or unpublished, experienced or less experienced—wants to know the magic formula to getting published. We’ve talked about this before. There is a formula. It’s very simple—just three things:

It has to be good. The story, the voice, the writing—they all have to be good.

So I say it’s simple, but I can tell you it’s that “good” that stumps folks. It’s difficult “to understand where you lie on the spectrum of quality,” as publishing industry expert Jane Friedman so delicately puts it.

And then along comes EW with an article that will give you a glimpse inside the ABA* publishing biz right now. “The Million-Dollar Book Club,” my print edition calls it. (The demands of SEO twists that interesting—and more honest—title into a less-true “Why publishers are betting big on debut novelists” for the online version.)

In this article are mentioned four novels that big New York publishing houses paid big bucks for:

Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue)
The Girls (Emma Cline)
The Nest (Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney)
Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler)

It also mentions why:

After reading just two pages of Emma Cline’s luminous novel The Girls—about the young women flocking around a Manson-like cult figure—Random House editor Kate Medina shut her door. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything else. I’m not talking to anybody. I’m just reading this book,’” she recalls. And when she finished, Medina offered Cline a three-book, reported $2 million deal. (The book hits stores in June.)

The biggest reason publishers are willing to pony up so much money for first-timers is the most obvious one—and why Medina couldn’t leave her chair that day: gorgeous writing. “I’ve been reading manuscripts for 15 years, and nothing slapped me in the face like this,” says Claudia Herr, Danler’s editor at Knopf, of Sweetbitter. “The energy and preciseness of her prose … it just completely blew me away.” Danler’s huge two-book deal, Herr reveals, was about taking the novel off the table—so that other houses couldn’t bid on it—and, more important, “telling her that we were serious about her, that we didn’t just want her sexy foodie novel.”

Thus it occurs to me this is an up-to-the-minute referendum on what is “good” in the publishing industry. (I also find it interesting that all four titles are by women.)

As of this writing, only The Nest is currently released; it’s on the NYT fiction Best Seller List.** But the advance praise for the other titles (in the EW article and elsewhere) is hard to resist—you might consider reading one or more of them for a look inside the biz.

* American Booksellers Association.
** You know I resist best sellers, so I’m dragging my feet on this one.


Tweet: Story, voice, writing—they all have to be good. But it’s “good” that stumps folks.
Tweet: This is an up-to-the-minute referendum on what is “good” in the publishing industry.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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