Like many college seniors, Victoria Aveyard approached her 2012 graduation from the University of Southern California with a mixture of excitement and dread. Armed with a BFA in screenwriting, she had a portfolio of ideas, but no job. And what she really wanted to do seemed risky: write a YA novel. But when she confessed this to a representative from Benderspink, the television production company, at a campus pitchfest, he encouraged her to go for it. Aveyard, then 22, promptly decamped from Los Angeles to her childhood home in western Massachusetts where she spent most of her “terrifying, unemployed year after college” writing her first draft.
“She need not have worried” dramatically understates the events that followed. Her contact at Benderspink passed the manuscript to Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media, who brokered a three-book deal with HarperTeen in April 2013. Book one, Red Queen, sold out its first printing of 150,000 and then some: it’s been on bestseller lists for most of the year since its release last February. Foreign rights have sold into 37 territories, and film rights were sold before publication to Universal Studios, with Elizabeth Banks signed on to direct.
“I remember when I first started writing, dreaming the dream that I would get it published, and what’s happened since has exceeded that wish in every way,” said Aveyard.
Now the follow-up, Glass Sword, arrives with a far more aggressive first printing of 500,000, continuing the exploits of Mare Barrow, 17, whose red blood marks her as a commoner in a kingdom whose rulers bleed silver and have superpowers, like telekinesis, Herculean strength, or mindreading. Mare’s fortunes change suddenly when she accidentally discovers that, despite her red blood, she, too, has a supernatural talent: she can control lightning.
The manuscript had a lot of “in-house love,” said HarperTeen executive editor Kristen Pettit, and the buzz grew exponentially once the publisher posted the striking cover (designed by Sarah Kaufman) on Epic Reads, its online YA site. “It’s so great, so iconographic, you almost don’t need the words ‘Red Queen’ on the cover,” said Pettit, who ordered up the full dose of marketing: bookseller dinners, an invitation to appear at Winter Institute and Comic-Con, a pre-publication tour.
All that enthusiasm notwithstanding, Red Queen shares a lot of DNA with other fantasy trilogies, many of which have struggled to find an audience in a crowded marketplace. It is set in a dystopian society. Its heroine only reluctantly becomes embroiled in a revolutionary movement to overthrow the elite. There’s a complicated love triangle. So why did Red Queen succeed when similar series have failed to gain traction?
Pettit believes it was a perfect alchemy of elements that propelled the book to the top of the sales chart. Aveyard, now 25, brought boundless energy and a lot of social media savvy to the project. Once her fan base started to grow, she was able – and eager – to feed her readers’ appetites. After Red Queen made the bestseller list, Pettit wondered what else Aveyard might have in her notebook or computer files about the characters and their backstories.
“We didn’t expect to hit the bestseller list immediately so we all started brainstorming about what else we could give fans, whether there were other stories we wanted to tell and, of course, there were,” Aveyard said. “It’s always interesting to get different points of view on a story.” HarperTeen published two e-novellas, Queen Song and Steel Scars, to keep Aveyard’s readers sated until the release of Glass Sword. (In January, both e-novellas were published in a single paperback edition under the title Cruel Crown.)
“A steady stream of content between books keeps fans engaged and gives readers insight into part of the greater tapestry that Victoria is weaving,” Pettit said. “Plus, it builds excitement for book two.” So does “cool swag,” like the glass swords HarperTeen gave out at Comic Con. “I mean how much fun is that, to use your glass sword for dueling with your friends?” Pettit asked, while admitting, “we might have done that a couple of times in the office ourselves.”
But Aveyard’s greatest strength, Pettit insists, is the breadth of her canvas. “From the beginning, I have been blown away by Victoria’s vision for the series, which is – I’m going to invent a word here – Lucas-ian – like George Lucas’s vision for Star Wars,” Pettit said. “She’s writing an epic in the same vein. There is so much in her head about these characters and their world.”
That became readily apparent when Aveyard began outlining book three, which she’s working on now. “I realized there’s no way I was going to get all of the story into three books,” Aveyard said, so Townsend negotiated a second, two-book deal for her writer. The trilogy became a quartet, with book three scheduled for 2017, book four for 2018, and a to-be-determined novel to be published in 2019.
Pettit said she had no hesitation about splitting the third volume into two separate books. “Hollywood would’ve done that to the third book anyway!” And Aveyard said she is not feeling pressure about the size of the story she’s taken on – the key is to stick to her routine: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“I make myself work store hours because it helps me get in the zone and I try to break at five o’clock unless something is really clicking,” she said. “Keeping set hours helps me combat burnout. I don’t work on the weekends so by Sunday night I am actually excited for the work week to begin. I can’t wait to get back to writing. I’m like, ‘Yeah, tomorrow’s Monday!’ ”
Pettit is also mindful about Aveyard’s workload, in part, because the young author’s “instinct is to say ‘Yes,’ when she’s asked to do something. Suzie [Townsend] and I both feel incredibly protective of her so we have to be much more careful with the requests we send to her because her enthusiasm is bottomless.”
The in-house marketing team has focused on promotions that don’t require the author’s input, creating, for instance, a fan site on Tumblr where readers who sign up to be part of Mare Barrow’s revolutionary group (The Scarlet Guard) get e-mail blasts each week with sneak peeks of new content, first looks at trailers or new jacket art, and the chance to win ARCs or related tchotchkes. “It’s pitched as, ‘This is our mission for the week. Share this link and you’ll get the first seven chapters of the next book before anybody else,’ ” Pettit said.
One thing they can’t do without the author, though, is stage a tour, so Aveyard will join HarperCollins author Sophie Jordan, whose new book is titled Reign of Shadows, for appearances in St. Louis; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Fairfax, Va.; Philadelphia; and New York City beginning February 9. Before she hits the road, Aveyard is trying to get work done on book three, knowing she might not get back to it for a while. “It’s ticking along but it’s harder once you’ve been published to devote your attention to the manuscript that still needs to be written,” she said. “I realize now how lucky I was to have finished the second book before the first one came out.”
Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard. HarperTeen, $19.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-06-231066-8
Cruel Crown by Victoria Aveyard. HarperTeen, paper $9.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-243534-7