The path to publishing a first novel is a winding one for many authors. For Mary Miller, a fortuitous meeting via a Web site helped launch her career, leading her (eventually) to Liveright, the W.W. Norton imprint, which released her debut novel, The Last Days of California, on January 20.
In 2006 Miller met Aaron Burch and Elizabeth Ellen, the publishers of Short Flight/Long Drive Books, on Zoetrope, an online literary magazine and writer’s community. The two began SF/LD Books as an extension of Hobart, their popular literary magazine, and they regularly communicated with Miller via Zoetrope and other online journals, such as elimae and SmokeLong Quarterly, commenting on each other’s work and developing a professional friendship. After two years, Ellen asked Miller if she wanted to write a short story collection for SF/LD, which, at that point, had published only a single title—a memoir by Michelle Orange. “I didn’t think I had enough material for a collection, but I went through everything I’d written and started putting together a manuscript,” Miller said. “I ended up with 175 pages; they accepted it shortly thereafter. There was no question of whether I’d go with them or someone else. I hadn’t been shopping around a manuscript at all, and knew very little about the business.”
Miller didn’t even have an agent when she signed with SF/LD. It wasn’t until after the publication in 2008 of her short story collection Big World, for which she received a small cash advance, that she met and signed with Sarah Bridgins of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. “Big World made it easier to get an agent,” Miller said. “Sarah wanted to represent me because she was a fan of the book.”
Katie Adams, Miller’s editor at Norton, first learned of her work from David Swider during ABA’s Winter Institute several years ago when Swider was working at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. Swider sent Adams a copy of Big Worlds and Adams was captivated by the stories. When Adams joined Norton in 2012 she made a note to look up Miller, but before she could act, in what she said was “utter coincidence,” “an agent asked if I might be interested in a debut novel by a young writer with a history of writing fantastic short stories,” Adams said. “To my delight, it was Mary Miller’s debut novel. After I fell in love and shared it with my colleagues, we made a preemptive offer.” Adams added that she believed it was time for Miller to find a bigger audience. “I had also seen enthusiasm for Big World grow over time, so I trusted that her readers were eager for more,” Adams said.
To date, Big World has sold around 3,000 copies. Liveright, on the other hand, is doing an announced a first print run of 25,000 copies for The Last Days of California, and will be sending Miller on a six-city tour that includes her hometown of Austin, Tex., as well as a trip to Square Books in Oxford. PW gave the novel a starred review.
Miller said there is less difference than she thought between working with SF/LD Books and Norton, especially considering the vast disparity in resources. “I’ve had really good experiences with both of them,” Miller said. “With SF/LD, the relationship became a friendship. I was consulted on everything. I go on vacation with Elizabeth. This is the greatest perk of the indie-lit scene, perhaps—the friendships that develop out of working relationships.” She added, “The people at Liveright have also been amazing.” Adams hopes that The Last Days of California is the beginning of a long collaboration between Miller and Norton.