Marysue Rucci said the moment that changed her career came in 1996. At the time she worked for Lisa Drew Books, a now-defunct imprint of Scribner, as an assistant. While visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., she was introduced to a young woman whose mom was working on a manuscript. That mom turned out to be future-bestseller Kathy Reichs. Although Rucci didn’t actually acquire Reichs’s first book—Susan Moldow did that—she discovered her. “I was an assistant only, but I did recognize something in that book, and that became a #1 bestseller,” she recounted. Of course, today, Rucci’s name is synonymous with a different bestselling author, and a much more recent career changer: Chris Cleave.
Rucci, who was named v-p and editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster in March 2012, recently acquired, arguably, the book of this year’s London Book Fair, paying a reported seven figures for a debut novel by Matthew Thomas called We Are Not Ourselves. Before that deal, Rucci was usually identified as ‘the one who bought Little Bee.’ That book, by Chris Cleave, is, Rucci said, “the other big moment for me.”
Rucci grew up in Connecticut and studied creative writing at Northwestern. It was there that she realized “I was a better editor than a writer.” She did not immediately go into publishing, though. After college, she moved to the West Coast, and briefly explored a career as a lawyer. Unsure about becoming a litigator, she got an internship at Graphic Arts Center Publishing, a Portland, Ore., independent that specializes in large-format essay books. When Rucci moved back to the East Coast, she went to the Radcliffe publishing program, and left it with her first trade job, at HarperCollins.
Rucci did some notable things in between discovering Reichs and acquiring Little Bee (in 2007). At Simon & Schuster, she worked under David Rosenthal (now publisher of Penguin’s Blue Rider Press) and, during those years, had the “honor, privilege, and drama of working with Hunter S. Thompson.” She edited a number of the late journalist’s books, even flying out, a few times, to work with him at his ranch in Woody Creek, Co. But Little Bee was the book that changed everything.
As is the case in the editorial profession, working with esteemed authors is important. It brings respect. But the key is discovery, and nothing is as important as finding bestsellers. The story of Little Bee has been written about extensively, and it began with a flop. In 2005, Knopf’s Sonny Mehta acquired British author Chris Cleave’s debut novel, Incendiary. The novel, which revolves around a terrorist attack at London’s Wembley Stadium, suffered from an unbelievably bad bit of luck. On the day of the book’s U.K. publication, July 7, 2005, the London Underground was bombed in a terrorist attack. The event prompted the U.K. publisher to cancel most of its publicity and promotion for the book, dropping Cleave’s book tour and removing ads for the title in the Tube. The result, as Rucci explained, was that the publication of the book in the States was “very, very, very modest, slash a failure.” (The Knopf hardcover edition sold just under 3,000 copies, according to BookScan.) Although Incendiary went on to win some literary awards, the book’s poor performance in the U.S. put something of a scarlet sales letter on Cleave.
In 2007, when Rucci received the manuscript for Little Bee, Cleave’s second novel, she wanted it immediately. Although most people in the industry knew that Incendiary suffered from bad timing, the fact remained that Cleave had a bad sales record. “I’d read [Incendiary] and thought it was fantastic, but that doesn’t change what’s on the computer monitor throughout bookstores and retailers,” Rucci said. “When Little Bee came across my desk, [I thought,] ‘Oh well, I know I’m going to be up against track,’ and then I read just the first paragraph, and I knew it was something spectacular.” The real victory, of course, came after Little Bee was published, and went on to sell over 1 million copies. (In the press release announcing Rucci’s promotion, S&S called it “one of the most acclaimed and beloved novels Simon & Schuster has published in recent years.”
Since Little Bee, Rucci does feel like things have changed for her, especially in terms of the quality of the manuscripts she receives. “Once a book becomes a success and it’s attributed to an editor, then people say, ‘Well, I know you did this book, so you may like this book as well.’ ” She also knows the anguish, though, of coming close to acquiring a great title, but not quite getting there. “It’s always painful when you’re the under-bidder on [a big book]. I actually had someone looking for a job come to me and say, ‘Well, I was the under-bidder on this book, this book, and this book.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there, done that, you know? It doesn’t really help me.’ ”
When speaking about her tastes, Rucci described herself as a “sentimental reader.” Her list certainly runs the gamut, with forthcoming titles ranging from Paul Yoon’s literary debut, Snow Hunters (slated for an August 2 release), to the sudsy sequel to Lauren Weisberger’s Devil Wears Prada, called Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, set for June 4. “I acquire the way I read,” Rucci elaborated. “I’m an omnivore and I love things that are voice-y and sentimental.... I want to be entertained and transported. I don’t want to have to work really hard.”
As to her recent purchase of We Are Not Ourselves, Rucci said she is excited, if a little nervous. When asked if she feels added pressure because of the book’s huge selling price—PW reported the rumored sum, for North American rights only, at $1.2 million—Rucci is candid: “Look, I don’t set out to spend a million dollars on a novel every day. I mean, that is certainly not the ideal.... But I think this book is basically worth every penny, and if I’m going to spend seven figures on book, I want it to be a book like this.”