A six-figure deal for North American rights to The Cruelty is the latest in a string of good things that have happened to Scott Bergstrom’s debut novel in just the past month. The manuscript, self-published a year ago, caught fire in October at the Frankfurt Book Fair with sales, so far, into 16 territories. “Every morning I wake up to more exciting e-mails,” said his agent, Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.
The buzz that those foreign sales generated ignited interest from Hollywood. In late October, Paramount secured the film rights, with Jerry Bruckheimer attached. (Yes, that Jerry Bruckheimer – Pirates of the Caribbean, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop.)
And, now, Bergstrom has a U.S. publisher for his thriller, which Adams describes as a “YA Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity, with a dash of Homeland.” (Adams said she got one offer for the book based on nothing more than that description.) Jean Feiwel of Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends won the book, plus a sequel, in a six-house auction. Publication is scheduled for winter 2017.
Bergstrom, a former advertising executive who had “created campaigns for everything from pizza to democracy,” decided to switch careers in 2013 with just the idea for the novel and a few pages written. “I thought there was no more drama to be had writing advertising copy and I wanted to try something different,” he said. He’s currently working on the sequel, titled The Greed.
“When all the deals from Frankfurt started rolling in, it was really gratifying to know that, for example, the Finns thought it was a smart business decision to translate my book into Finnish,” said Bergstrom, a Denver-based father of two. “And I was sitting in the DMV when I got the call about the film deal. That was quite a moment. But the real beauty is to have an American publisher who completely understands the project in exactly the way I had always hoped a publisher would. To hear their enthusiasm made all the difference.”
Bergstrom’s heroine is Gwendolyn Bloom, a Jewish, slightly overweight 17-year-old, who is transformed into a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red,” during her mission to rescue her father, a kidnapped diplomat. Her search takes her into Europe’s most dangerous slums, and into contact with gangsters, spies, and arms dealers.
Bergstrom initially self-published the book because he thought it might meet resistance from traditional YA publishers. Gwendolyn faces “all sorts of morally ambiguous choices,” and often shoots first, asks questions later. “The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own,” Bergstrom said. “In a lot of YA, the conflict takes place inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces. If you think of those stories as a metaphor for high school, they start to make a lot more sense, but that was one thing I wanted to depart from.”
After self-publishing the story, he realized that writing was easier than navigating the distribution channels his book would need in order to reach a wide audience. The freelance editor he had originally hired to copyedit the manuscript, Maya Packard, had an idea for his next step: she gave a copy to her neighbor, Tracey Adams.
“Maya told me, ‘You have to read this,’ ” Adams said, who said the novel needed almost no editing. She decided to “go out big,” simultaneously e-mailing the manuscript to co-agents who could pitch it in Frankfurt, to Hollywood via Stephen Moore of the Paul Kohner Agency, and to U.S. publishers.
Feiwel entered the picture indirectly and behind the eight ball. She was headed home from work one day when she got a message from Venetia Gosling, her counterpart at Macmillan U.K., who heard the Frankfurt buzz and wanted to know what Feiwel knew about Bergstrom’s novel.
“I was on the train going home on a Wednesday and thought, ‘Oh, shoot me. How did we not know about this?’ ” Feiwel recalled. She and the “intrepid, fantastic” Liz Szabla, v-p and editor-in-chief at Feiwel and Friends, got the manuscript from Adams that evening with a warning that the auction for North American rights was heated, full of heavyweights, and two days away.
Szabla read the novel overnight and called Bergstrom Thursday. Macmillan’s Liz Fithian and Allison Verost pulled together a marketing plan “nearly instantaneously.” Late Friday, Adams called Feiwel.
“She began with one of those lines that you never want to hear: ‘This has been a very hard decision,’ ” Feiwel recalled. “But then she said, ‘You had us at hello.’ ” While other publishers had some concerns about the level of violence in The Cruelty, Bergstrom felt the Macmillan team completely understood his character’s motivation.
“There is a body count, but I was more interested in the aspect of a girl figuring out her identity,” Feiwel said. “Other publishers wanted to tone down the violence, but this is a superhero story. That’s why the movies bought it. And I wanted her to get the bad guys. In terms of empowerment, it’s very satisfying.”
Adams said she, too, thought that Gwen would get a lot of leeway from readers because of her mission’s goal. “She’s going to do whatever it takes to save her dad and that was good enough for me,” Adams said. “Kicking butt to save your dad is actually a lot easier for me to swallow than kids killing kids in The Hunger Games.”