British novelist Sally Green’s publishing saga will inspire veteran and aspiring authors alike. After a career in finance and a stint as full-time mother, she took a stab at writing and seems to have hit the mark. Her novel, Half Bad, book one of a trilogy, was snatched up by publishers in several countries within days of submission, and she scored a movie deal not long thereafter. To date, the book has been sold to publishers in 42 countries.
The trilogy is set in an alternate modern-day England where witches live alongside humans. White witches are good, black witches are evil, and 16-year-old Nathan – who is half and half – is caught in the middle and hunted by both sides. Viking will release the book on March 4 with a 200,000-copy first printing, and Puffin U.K. and Penguin Australia will publish it simultaneously.
The whirlwind acquisitions of Half Bad took place at and around last year’s Bologna Book Fair. Days before the convention, Green’s London-based agent, Claire Wilson of Rogers, Coleridge & White, submitted the book project to publishers. Ben Horslen, who had joined Puffin U.K. as editorial director just weeks earlier, acted quickly. Two days after receiving the submission, he bought world rights to the trilogy in a pre-empt.
The following day, Zosia Knopp, Puffin U.K. rights director, submitted the project to foreign publishers and within four days had offers from houses in France and Germany. There was sufficient interest from U.S. publishers that she conducted an auction for North American rights to Half Bad during the book fair, and Ken Wright, v-p and publisher of Viking, was top bidder.
Wright was on the way to Bologna via Venice when he received the Half Bad submission by e-mail. He started reading the manuscript on his iPhone while riding in a water taxi en route to his hotel, and was instantly hooked. “It grabbed me the minute I began reading it,” he recalled. “I immediately got a sense of who Nathan is. The novel plays around with our preconceived notion of good and evil, and turns it on its head. The author does a remarkable job of giving a real sense that it’s a gray world out there.”
As soon as he arrived at Bologna, Wright tuned in to the considerable buzz surrounding Half Bad. “I’d already sent the book to one of my editors back home, who loved it as well, and I began talking to people at Penguin U.K. about our mutual enthusiasm,” he said. “In fact, lots of publishers were talking about it – Half Bad was the book of the fair. Puffin U.K. took advantage of all the interest and held an auction for North American rights right there in Bologna. That’s pretty unusual.”
Also unusual is the fact that a trilogy by an unknown author has been sold into 42 countries well in advance of publication. “I don’t know for sure, but I believe that is an unprecedented number of territories to sell a first novel into before publication,” said Wright, who edited Half Bad together with Horslen. Wright also called locking in a movie deal “so early in the game” extremely rare: in a bidding war, Fox 2000 beat out several other studios for film rights to Half Bad, with Karen Rosenfelt (Twilight; The Book Thief) on board as producer.
A Fortuitous Career Switch
Until four years ago, Green was involved in very different pursuits. “I studied mining geology at university in London, which didn’t lead to any suitable career prospects!” she said. “After that, when I was in my early 20s, I trained as an accountant. From that point, I worked in accountancy and in finance departments of various businesses.” After having a child at the age of 41, Green “enjoyed being a full-time mum at home.” When her son, now 11, started school, the author said, “I had more time, and began writing and studying online to get a degree in English literature and creative writing.”
One day in 2010, Green recalled, she suddenly had an idea for a story. “I started writing, and really thought it would be about three pages and that I’d stop after an hour or so,” she said. “But I became obsessed with it. I was having fun writing and wasn’t taking it terribly seriously. It just grew and grew, and before long I had a novel.”
Though Green put aside that novel, a love story about witches with a female protagonist, it did help inspire Half Bad. “That first attempt was quite different from Half Bad, but it got me thinking about writing another story in that world,” she said. “I realized that my strength is not really in the love story area, and that I liked writing from a male point of view. What I really enjoy about being a writer is that you can put yourself in others’ shoes and pretend to be someone entirely different. With Nathan, that person was male and young.”
A Hearty Early Welcome
Green called the pre-pub buzz for Half Bad “amazing and still incredible to me. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better.” Viking, Puffin U.K., and Penguin Australia are working together to finalize plans for a global marketing campaign for Half Bad in the spring.
Green got an early inkling of booksellers’ excitement about her novel on two pre-pub bookseller dinner tours – one in the U.S. and one in the U.K. “It was really nice to see how booksellers in both places were so similar in that they are mad about books,” she observed. “And I was delighted to see how enthusiastic they were about Half Bad.”
Two booksellers from Books, Bytes & Beyond in Glen Rock, N.J. – owner Mary Brown and publicity and author event coordinator Trish Bernabeo – were already ardent Half Bad fans when they met Green at a dinner in New York City on January 27. “This is a darkly magical, amazingly well-written first novel,” said Brown. “I was initially drawn to the artistic cover and the book kept me transfixed from the beginning. I told Trish she needed to start reading it immediately, so we could discuss it as we read. I don’t think we had ever done this before, and every day we had to compare notes!” She envisions the novel appealing to teens who read the Harry Potter books at a younger age and “were drawn to the darkness and seriousness of the later books in that series.”
Another bookseller dinner attendee, Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, Calif., also evoked J.K. Rowling’s work when praising Half Bad. “I had the same kind of feeling reading this novel that I felt while first reading Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games – I knew right away I was reading something special,” she said. “I started the book one night, couldn’t stop reading, and suddenly realized it was 2:00 in the morning. I love the kind of book that takes me on a ride like that. Everyone I’ve given it to to read – adults and kids – has asked eagerly when the second book will come out.”
Those early fans will be pleased to know that Green is currently editing her first draft of book two in the trilogy, called Half Wild, which Viking will release in spring 2015. The author’s experience writing the second novel was very different. “This was a big change for me, since I wrote Half Bad without really believing it would be published,” she said. “But now I’ve got a deadline and have to get on with it. At first I was terrified when I faced a blank page again, but once I got a few ideas working I was pleased. I find the title drives the story as well as the characters, so I’m trying to get the wild element in there. I still feel very new to writing and know I have a lot to learn. But I’m doing my best to make this second novel the very best book I can write.”
Half Bad by Sally Green. Viking, $18.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-670-01678-5