One year ago, Knopf Books for Young Readers announced its acquisition of The Books of Beginning, a middle-grade fantasy trilogy by John Stephens, a debut author who has worked in television as writer and producer. At 2010’s Bologna Book Fair, there was much buzz about the trilogy and significant interest from publishers around the world.
What a difference a year makes. On April 5, Knopf released The Emerald Atlas, the trilogy’s inaugural installment, and the books have been licensed in over 35 countries. Just back from last week’s Bologna fair, where he was fêted by his U.S. and many of his international publishers, Stephens embarked on a 10-city tour to promote The Emerald Atlas. And he has just added something else to his growing list of credits: he’s a first-time father, having welcomed a son, Dashiell, into his life three weeks ago.
The Emerald Atlas—which introduces three siblings, transported to another world through a mysterious book, who set out to save their family and wind up having to save the world—has a robust 250,000-copy first printing. A simultaneously released audio book is narrated by Grammy Award-winning actor Jim Dale. Random House Children’s Books started spreading word of Stephens’s book early, with pre-pub promotion that included extensive media mailings, movie theater advertising, five video trailers, and a five-city author tour in January.
The Trilogy Finds a Home
Stepping back to mid-March 2010: Stephen’s agent, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, sent the manuscript out to editors, having full confidence in its appeal. “When I read this novel I felt as though I had absolutely read an instant classic of children’s literature,” he says. “As an agent, I usually have to conceptualize about how to submit a book, but all I had to say here was, ‘This is the book you’ve been waiting for—it is that special.’ There was no mad genius behind my selling this book or having this book become a global phenomenon. It was just a matter of telling people to read it.”
One recipient of the manuscript who was immediately smitten was Knopf executive editor Michelle Frey, who passed along the novel to v-p and publishing director Nancy Hinkel. Hinkel took the manuscript home, read it in one sitting, and was equally enthusiastic. “From the opening chapter, the novel grabs you—and continues to pull you in,” she says. “The book is exciting, funny, and charming, and I became so intensely caught up with the characters that I couldn’t stop reading. I knew right away that this was a special book that kids and adults would embrace.”
Other publishers shared Knopf’s excitement about the trilogy, and Lipskar held an auction for North American rights at the end of March. Nerves were taut in-house during the final day of the bidding, Hinkel recalls. Stephens was traveling at the time, and Frey phoned him just before he left his hotel room—and Hinkel then chatted with him when he was at the airport. “John planned to make a decision about a publisher on the plane, so we had to wait for him to land,” says Hinkel. “We were nervously waiting, watching the clock, and when he called there was a huge outburst of excitement that people heard throughout the office.” Frey, who also edits Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, is the editor of Stephens's trilogy.
Stephens remembers well his in-flight deliberation. “Everyone was incredibly passionate about the book, and it was a very hard decision,” he notes. “In the end, I went with my gut. It was kind of like making the decision to get married—it just felt right.”
From Screen to Printed Page
Stephens’s path to novelist was somewhat circuitous. As a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Virginia, he aspired to write fiction, but says humbly, “I wasn’t good enough at the time.” Watching ER on TV one night, he had what he calls “a revelation. It suddenly occurred to me that someone writes this show! So after I graduated in 1998, I decided to go to Hollywood.” There he spent a decade working as writer-producer on Gilmore Girls and The O.C., after which heserved executive producer of Gossip Girl. Stephens has also directed episodes of both shows.
“One reason I stopped thinking for a while about writing novels is that I’d fallen out of love with contemporary adult fiction,” Stephens says. But he had a very different reaction when he read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, which he says “really turned me on to kids’ literature.”
While reading that novel, Stephens happened to look through an old family album. “I saw a photo of my sister and me on vacation as kids, and I suddenly wished that this were a magic album that could bring me back to that time. I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment, and immediately came up with the theme for my book—about a magical book and a family coming back together. That photo was the mustard seed.”
The lessons he learned during his years of writing for TV “really paid off,” he says. “I had learned quite a bit about storytelling and dramatic structure, and that, and the ability to tell a large-scope story, stood me in good stead with dialogue and scene construction in my novel.” Still, writing The Emerald Atlas posed a different, if pleasant, challenge. “I used a muscle I hadn’t used in a long time,” Stephens reflects. “I really enjoyed creating this world and living with these characters. And now, to have this finished book in my hand is phenomenally gratifying.”
Also gratifying were his experiences in Bologna last week, when he met a number of his international publishers for the first time. While at the fair, Stephens blogged about these encounters: “Every half hour, I meet with a different one of my foreign publishers, the people who the year before had bravely agreed to publish my novel. Reflect on how I worked on my book in secret for years, all the time fairly certain that I could get my wife and likely her alone to read it. Now I am meeting people who are publishing it around the world. Surreal and amazing and humbling. Do my best to ignore the voice telling me they have me confused with someone else.”
In addition to Stephens’s current tour, Random House is supporting the release of The Emerald Atlas – which has a 250,000-copy first printing – with online and national print advertising, social networking and online promotion, outreach to institutional markets, and a second wave of theater advertising. Stephens will promote the international editions of his novel with U.K. and European tours.
“It’s bananas,” Stephens says point-blank about the whirlwind of attention his book debut has garnered. He’s looking forward to meeting young readers on his tour, which includes school visits that will bring him in touch with some 2000 students. “This is a wildly different level of intimacy than with writing for TV. Before, I’d put something out into the world and the only reaction I’d get was what I’d hear through the blogosphere. Now I’m meeting kids who have read and thought about my book, and I’m seeing how it has affected them. I love having that opportunity.”
Stephens reports that he is “deep into” the writing of the second book in his trilogy, commenting, “One thing about TV, it teaches you to write every day on a schedule.” With his first child and first book arriving within a single year, can 2012 possibly measure up? “I really wonder how,” Stephens replies with a laugh. “This has been a very busy year!”
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. Knopf, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-375-86870-2