Anyone who's spent time in the rights center at an international book fair might not recognize the romanticism of what's happening. Yes, people are importing and exporting literature, but, by the looks of it, you would think they're selling widgets. The set-up at Frankfurt, where the rights center is a windowless room lit by bad fluorescents and filled with rows of identical desks, speaks to the work happening. Agents and foreign rights directors sit through back-to-back-to-back meetings where they try to sell the same books over and over and over again. While titles undoubtedly get lost in the shuffle, putting the right American book with the right foreign publisher can yield magic. For Patrick deWitt, a Portland resident who is in the unlikely position of having his sophomore novel, The Sisters Brothers, on the longlist for Canada's Giller Prize as well as the shortlist for England's Man Booker, it was a bit of international sales magic that landed him in this enviable spot.
To understand how the sales approach to The Sisters Brothers ultimately helped deWitt on the prize circuit, you have to go back to his first novel, Ablutions. Born in Vancouver, deWitt spent his formative years shuttling between Canada and L.A. before settling permanently in the States. Around 2005, while deWitt was working at a Hollywood bar and writing on the side, the musician Matt Sweeney (of bands like Billy Corgan's short-lived trio Zwan) passed along what deWitt had been working on to a friend, the literary agent Peter McGuigan. What McGuigan got was a dark tale about an alcoholic bar tender in L.A. Although the work struck a nerve with McGuigan, he didn't think it would sell. The work was, at that time, McGuigan said, "too long for a short story and too short for a novel." Keeping in touch with deWitt, McGuigan encouraged him to keep writing. Over roughly two years, during which the author relocated to Seattle to work construction, the novella-ish work was transformed into a full-length novel.
Once the manuscript hit 200 pages, it was called Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, and McGuigan started shopping it. The rejections began rolling in. A number of readers said the dark tone coupled with the unusual narration—it was told in the little-used second person—was off-putting. One editor, McGuigan recalls, told him he "felt like he needed to take a shower after reading it." But Tina Pohlman, then at Harcourt (which was, at the time, a standalone house), liked the book. She made a solid offer, acquiring North American rights. By the time Ablutions was published in 2009, however, Harcourt had been acquired by Houghton Mifflin, and was staving off bankruptcy scares under new corporate management, and Pohlman had lost her job. Although Ablutions received strong reviews, it only sold a few thousand copies.
A second novel that deWitt had written, called Winter Woman, was already done. But both he and McGuigan had reservations about it. A triptych, the novel felt to both like three separate works. McGuigan was also worried that some editors might want to sell the book as a young adult novel, since one section focused on a teenage boy. DeWitt decided to work on something else. (The section of Winter Woman about the teenager won over an independent filmmaker who'd met deWitt at the bar. He asked the author to adapt that section into a screenplay and the ensuing work, a coming-of-age drama called Terri that stars John C. Reilly, drew buzz at Sundance and is now in limited release.)
When McGuigan received deWitt's next manuscript, a western about two hired killers called The Warm Job, he felt it was nearly perfect. "I think [Patrick] avoided the classic second novel trap by turning his second novel into a screenplay," McGuigan explained.
But McGuigan held off on making a U.S. sale. Although he hadn't thought much about deWitt being Canadian when he sold Ablutions—deWitt is married to an American but does not have U.S. citizenship—it was on McGuigan's mind with The Warm Job. Being published separately in Canada was something McGuigan felt was necessary. "I knew that, as a Canadian citizen, Pat was eligible for tour support, prizes, translation grants—things that he would never get unless he was properly published in the Great White North."
Because most American publishers try to acquire North American rights out of the gate, McGuigan decided to get a strong Canadian offer in place before submitting the book in the States. Granta, which had published Ablutions in the U.K. in 2009, suggested that McGuigan take The Warm Job to House of Anansi, a literary outfit that distributes Granta in Canada. After talks with publishers in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., The Warm Job went up for auction in all three countries at roughly the same time. The book sold first in the U.K., to Granta, then to Anansi, and, finally, in the U.S., where Lee Boudreaux at Ecco acquired it., and later changed the title to The Sisters Brothers.
Those three houses wound up working together on the book in an unusual fashion. Sarah MacLachlan, president and publisher of Anansi, said the editorial effort was a collaborative one. "Lee took the lead, and we all read the manuscript, and any concerns or suggestions we all funneled in through her. All of us would say that it was a great international publishing experience."
Stephanie Abou, who handles foreign rights for McGuigan's agency, Foundry Literary + Media, said that having Granta, Ecco, and Anansi on board going into Frankfurt in the fall of 2010 was also a huge help in selling The Sisters Brothers abroad. Because the book is a western, an American genre that doesn't easily translate internationally, having three well-regarded publishers attached to the book was, Abou said, something like "a stamp of approval."
Focusing on handselling the title, Abou has sold The Sisters Brothers, which came out in the U.S. in April, in 20 countries, with more offers pending. As for breaking off Canada this time around, Abou believes it was key for deWitt's success there. "Having a publisher based in Canada, it helped him get exposure," she said. For MacLachlan there is a special joy in seeing deWitt reaping the benefits, whether he wins the Giller (or the Booker). "It is rare," she says of the united international approach on The Sisters Brothers, "but I think it's really fortuitous that it's all happened this way. We can all share in each other's good fortune now."