Last fall, Timothy O’Connell, an editor at Vintage, noticed a starred PW review of The Natural Order of Things by Kevin P. Keating. In February he learned that the novel, at the time available via print-on-demand from Aqueous Books, had been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. By then, his interest was really piqued and, by coincidence, an opportunity to acquire the paperback rights landed on his desk shortly thereafter.
David Patterson, an agent at Foundry, submitted the book in early March alongside Keating’s next novel, Captive Condition. During the first week of April, O’Connell secured a two-book deal at auction for paperback rights to The Natural Order of Things and rights for all formats for Captive Condition. Vintage released an e-book of The Natural Order of Things in advance of the L.A. Times awards to put some version on the market in the event that the novel won (it didn’t; Keating lost out to Maggie Shipstead for Seating Arrangements), and will publish the book as a Vintage Contemporaries paperback original in April 2014, alongside an updated e-book. O’Connell expects the manuscript for Captive Condition soon, and hopes for hardcover publication next fall by Pantheon.
O’Connell has some experience in picking up titles released from small presses and bringing them to wider distribution. In 2010, he acquired Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, published in hardcover by McPherson & Company, a small press in Kingston, N.Y., and nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction. He bought paperback rights to the book on the Monday before the awards, presented it in-house on Tuesday, and on Wednesday it won. O’Connell said he would have bought these books on literary merit alone, with or without an award nod, and, more than anything, tips his hat to the presses that shone a light on the talent in the first place.
“Without the smaller presses, we’re kind of at sea,” said O’Connell. “I have nothing but immense gratitude for [them]. They provide something to us that is often overlooked.”
The editor took an uncommon path to mainstream publishing himself, much like many of his authors. O’Connell worked as a sushi chef for five years, before receiving his M.F.A. at Texas State University in 2005. At 29, he began a short internship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and moved to Vintage in 2006. He credits his previous experience with shaping his attitude about the smaller presses. “I have a lot of friends who are publishing with smaller presses,” he said. “It’s a good thing for any editor to be aware of.”
O’Connell just secured rights to a new novel from Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl. Published by Night Shade Books in 2009, The Windup Girl (which O’Connell deemed the “toast of the sci-fi world” during its publication year), sold more than 200,000 copies. After Night Shade ran into financial trouble, as well as after a “long courtship” with Bacigalupi’s agent, Russell Galen, O’Connell secured Bacigalupi’s next book, The Water Knife, which will be published on the Knopf list. “[Bacigalupi] sold 200,000 copies of Windup Girl while he was being published by a small press that was going out of business,” said O’Connell. “We’re going to take that [success] and put our muscle behind it. Same with Kevin, and same with Jaimy. It is the first time [those authors] are published by one of the big five.”
As award-winning literary fiction writers (like Sergio De La Pava, whose initially self-published A Naked Singularity nabbed the 2013 PEN prize for debut fiction) emerge from the constantly evolving world of self-publishing, in addition to the small, independent presses, O’Connell’s credo is to always be searching for the next great thing no matter where it comes from. “I always go looking—the first [author] I signed up didn’t have an agent,” said O’Connell. “You can’t sit back.”