It was all about young, debut authors at this year’s London Book Fair. Some of the most talked-about books were by writers whose own backstories—usually about emerging from anonymity to write the big book of the fair—were as talked about as the books they sold. One of the biggest books of the fair is by a high school math teacher. Another was discovered in the slush pile. Another is an ambitious nonfiction work by someone who’s worked as a reporter.
A number of the hot books in London sold, at least to U.S. buyers, before the fair got underway. This is nothing new, as more and more agents try to sell a potentially big book to at least one publisher before big rights fairs in order to drum up chatter and fetch bigger advances from foreign publishers.
One of the biggest books to sell before this year’s fair—in both page count and in advance size—was Matthew Thomas’s 700-plus-page novel We Are Not Ourselves. WME’s Bill Clegg sold North American rights to the book to Marysue Rucci for seven figures. (It’s rumoured Rucci paid $1.2 million for the novel.) Rucci bought the book after a two-day auction, as London-based WME agent Elizabeth Sheinkman, who was handling U.K. rights for the book, confirmed. At press time Sheinkman had not closed on the book in the U.K., but, as of Monday, there were seven bidders going after U.K. and Commonwealth rights. Other offers had also come in from France, Italy and Holland.
In its release about the acquisition, Simon & Schuster, which is planning a 2014 publication, called the novel a “sprawling portrait of the Irish-American Leary family—Ed, Eileen, and their son Connell—as they move from Jackson Heights, Queens to Bronxville, New York in pursuit of the American dream.” The publisher also touted the fact that Thomas teaches at New York City’s Xavier high school, and has been working on the book for over a decade.
Another debut, which, as of early Wednesday, still had not sold in most countries, came from British 28-year-old Emma Healey. Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton is selling the book and had only sold the title in Canada—to Knopf—when PW spoke to her on Monday. Auctions for the book were going on in various countries, though, and the title was drawing a notable amount of attention, especially in the U.K., where Sutton said “pretty much everyone is keen.” The novel follows a woman with dementia who is searching for her missing best friend. (Healey is writing the book under the name E.C. Healey.)
The novel pulled from the slush pile was acquired by Ecco’s Lee Boudreaux before the fair. The Miniaturist, which is set in 17th century Amsterdam, is being represented by the agent Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Mushens confirmed that the book was bought for high six figures in both the U.S. and the U.K., where Frances Main at Picador acquired, after beating out 10 other bidders. Pre-empts for the book have also come in from numerous countries, including Brazil, Spain (where it also sold for six figures), Canada and Norway.
In the novel, a young country girl marries a wealthy, older merchant. When her distant and secretive new husband buys her a miniature version of their own house, the heroine begins to wonder, as Mushens put it, “wonder if they are being controlled by the mysterious miniaturist who built it.” The 30-year-old author, Jessie Burton, who lives in London, worked as a production assistant and actress, and, Mushens noted, received five offers of representation after submitting the book through the slush pile. Speaking about the book, Boudreaux, said it is “reminiscent of Sarah Waters” and that Burton “wickedly reveals the hypocrisies of the age (many of which mirror our own) and offers up an astonishingly powerful ending in which a very young and inexperienced woman seizes control of her fate and subverts our expectations yet again.”
Another notable book which was bought in the U.S. on Friday, before the fair started on Monday, is Stephen Richard Witt’s How Music Got Free. Chris Parris-Lamb at Gernert sold the nonfiction book to Allison Lorentzen at Viking—she took North American rights—for a mid six figure sum in a 10-bidder auction.
The book, which is subtitled The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, is, Parris-Lamb said, about “the secret history of the birth and proliferation of online music piracy in the mid 90s.” The author, coming from a finance background, became obsessed with the story of how one employee at a CD pressing plant, who was smuggling albums to people in advance of their on-sale date, became, briefly, a hugely powerful figure in the music industry. Interested in pursuing the smuggler’s story, Witt went to Columbia Journalism School and started researching and writing the book. (Witt currently works as a freelancer for Al Jazeera TV, though he's never worked as a reporter.) The book, which Parris-Lamb said he’s been comparing to works by Michael Lewis, had a comparison he particularly appreciated which is “The Orchid Thief for a digital generation."