There is nothing as beguiling as the discovery of a new voice on the page: it has the sparkle of new friendship, or even romance. Here is a story you didn’t know you needed to read, one that makes your world suddenly larger, your perspective a little sharper. In a word, you are smitten.
How do you put a price tag on the Thrill of the New?
The executive had flown in from California. We sat in the spanking new lower Fifth Avenue offices of the new publishing operation.
Given the parent company’s core businesses in theme parks and entertainment, I wasn’t sure this new operation would be a natural home for books I’d want to acquire. The book business works on margins media companies usually can’t stomach. But I was fascinated by the idea of helping to start a new enterprise—a unique opportunity.
The visiting executive’s open-collared look did nothing to belie his just-business tone: “Why should we publish first novels?” he asked me across the well-appointed room. “Don’t most of them lose money?” he went on, undeterred by my initial silence.
I was taken aback, because the recently appointed publisher had recruited me with real conviction. I was then a senior editor elsewhere, where I’d brought in work by prize-winning crime writer James Lee Burke, and a first novel by a young L.A.-based police reporter named Michael Connelly.
Now someone above my potential new boss on the corporate food chain sounded skeptical of my possible role in the new company. Still, with no hesitation, I replied: “If I can’t find new writers, I wouldn’t be interested in working here. Publishing first novels is akin to supporting a new filmmaker in film and television. You establish a talent bank on which to draw in future.”
Bone by Chinese American writer Fae Myenne Ng was as one of the first deposits in my talent bank after I got the job. First published in 1993, it is still in print, and widely adopted in university courses in Asian American and American immigrant literature. Other new writers followed, some more successful than others. But even after I moved on from the company and eventually left corporate publishing, I never lost my interest in first fiction, even if the bulk of my resume as a freelance editor and “book doctor” has been in memoir and autobiography.
As part of my role as a “mentor” to emerging writers at the Center for Fiction, relocated to Brooklyn, I read new work and then meet with the novelist to go over possible changes. Akin to teaching creative writing, it gives me a chance to encounter new voices, to discuss characterization, narrative flow, and plot lines—to keep my skillset sharp, and continually evolving.
Last year, two novels I worked on for the Center were very well-received: American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson, a literary thriller about a young African American operative who goes to Burkina Faso on a contract from the CIA; and The Affair of the Falcons, by Melissa Rivero, whose undocumented Peruvian protagonist’s struggle to keep her head above water in New York City puts her in increasingly precarious positions. The Washington Post called it, “A beautiful, serious, and life-affirming book.”
Both came out from major publishers, and Wilkinson’s was lauded this way by NPR: “Like the best of John LeCarre, it’s extremely hard to put down.” It also wound up on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
The thrill of the new, indeed.
This summer, a novel by a new client of mixed Jamaican/Iranian ancestry was pre-empted by yet another major publisher. I can hardly wait to see how this blazingly original workplace satire set in the tech industry makes its way in the marketplace.
When I was a publisher, I defined a healthy list of projects as one that included overtly commercial books to help pay the light bills, and always, a first novel or two that represented a risk. I maintain the same general criteria as a freelancer.
Without risk, there is no reward, in life or in the literary world.
I remember this each time I pass a booth at Book Expo invariably dominated by another new title by that onetime first novelist, Michael Connelly.
I am always greeted with great warmth.