A "great old-fashioned publishing job" is how Michael Pietsch described the campaign Little, Brown has launched for the author it's trying to turn into its latest franchise bestseller: Michael Koryta. Amid the growing cacophony of claims that authors don't really need publishers anymore—this was the general media's takeaway from the news that the Andrew Wylie Agency launched a publishing division—Little, Brown's major investment in a relative unknown (who isn't writing a YA trilogy) stands as an important reminder that there are still publishers who think they can make money by investing in an author that they simply believe can write.
Koryta (pronounced Kor-ee-ta) was a young (he's 27) genre thriller writer at St. Martin's Press until, in a case of serendipity, his editor there turned down a manuscript of his that veered into the supernatural. His agent, David Hale Smith, started shopping the book and it landed at Little, Brown, which signed the author, in 2008 to a three-book deal.
The manuscript that SMP passed on, originally called Lost River, was published as So Cold the River by LB in June. To Koryta's small fan base, the new book was a noticeable shift. Moving away from the hard-boiled mysteries he wrote at SMP, So Cold the River, which follows a struggling Hollywood director who takes an unorthodox video history assignment in an Indiana town, is a ghost story. While Koryta said a lot of his fans have been focused on the genre shift, LB saw the change in So Cold the River as a chance to launch the publisher's new talent as if he were a debut author.
Although Koryta's written five books at SMP—four of them feature the Cleveland PI Lincoln Perry—he's not well-known outside of the mystery community. He also didn't head into his LB deal with an impressive sales record. Pietsch said Koryta's books at SMP never sold much beyond the 5,000-copy mark.
Despite Koryta's unimpressive sales record, LB has upped its investment in the author. As LB was preparing to publish So Cold the River, book three in Koryta's contract arrived. (Koryta says 2009, which was the first year he spent as a full-time writer, was unusually productive for him; he estimates he churned out more than 400,000 words.) With two of Koryta's contracted books ready for market, and a third in good shape, Pietsch decided to sign Koryta to another contract.
A few months ago, Little, Brown signed Koryta to a second three-book deal and, instead of publishing his first three books over the course of three years—mimicking a schedule more standard among genre writers—it has chosen to saturate the market. Now Koryta's second book, Cypress House, will bow in January 2011 and his third, The Ridge, in June 2011. (Each book is a stand-alone novel.)
Though Koryta hasn't broken onto the bestseller lists, LB is pleased with how So Cold the River is doing. After going to press with an announced 25,000 copies, there are now a little more than 37,000 copies in print.
Talking about the Koryta campaign, Pietsch said it's "the kind of building we love." At BEA, armed with 4,000 ARCs, LB was talking up So Cold the River, competing against huge summer books like Justin Cronin's The Passage, for which Ballantine did a million-copy first printing. Nonetheless, LB wasn't shy about its lofty goals for Koryta. Publicist Heather Rizzo told PW at the show that the aim was to turn the author into the next Stephen King.
LB also got out very early for So Cold the River. Marketing director Heather Fain said the house saw a particularly strong response to a widget the online marketing department launched last October at Bouchercon. The widget features interviews with Koryta, an excerpt from the novel, and a clip of Koryta's violinist sister playing (the violin works into the book's plot); Fain said it got nearly 500,000 views. Since then, Koryta's had a mix of solid reviews, including a starred one from PW, and healthy feature coverage: USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Parade, and TheNewYorker.com.
Asked about signing a low-selling author to a six-book deal, Pietsch said it came down to more than numbers. So was it Kortya's voracious writing pace? His youth? Telegenic presence? While acknowledging that Koryta's pace was striking, Pietsch said that the huge investment was about a gut feeling. "This isn't just one editor and one publisher [falling in love]," Pietsch said, explaining the excitement Koryta's books have created in-house. "We have a communal passion [for these titles] that you can't fake, and you can't force."