The Collaborative, Alloy Entertainment’s recently launched business arm, has acquired its first book project. The new venture is teaming up with HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray to publish How to Love, a YA novel by debut author Katie Cotugno. Scheduled for winter 2014, the book is a contemporary romance with a mystery element and the initial work in a two-book acquisition by Alessandra Balzer, v-p and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray.

As a packager, Alloy Entertainment has long been a source of bestselling YA titles, counting The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, as well as the Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars series – and their attendant film or TV adaptations – among its hits. Until now, all of Alloy’s ideas were conceived in-house. But the advent of the Collaborative marks the first time the company has invited manuscript submissions from outside authors. “We know there are a lot of great ideas out there,” said Alloy v-p and editorial director Sara Shandler. “So we decided, ‘Let’s be open and see what comes to us.’ ” Though the formation of the division was announced in 2009, Shandler says, “It’s only been the last year that we’ve been working on the Collaborative in earnest.”

The year 2009 was also when aspiring author Cotugno saw a buzzed-about profile of Alloy in the New Yorker. “As soon as I read it, I was thinking, ‘I love you guys already!’ ” she says. “And when I found out that they were looking for completed works, I queried them. I thought they would be a good fit for me.”

Cotugno had a manuscript at the ready because the first incarnation of How to Love was her senior thesis at Emerson College in Boston. She graduated in 2007 with a degree in writing, literature, and publishing, and a concentration in creative writing. (She still lives in Boston, where she works for a small non-profit organization.)

After about six or seven months, says Cotugno, she heard from Alloy editor Joelle Hobeika, who expressed interest and asked for additional writing samples. In short order Hobeika requested the rest of Cotugno’s novel, and not long after that, the author says, “They made me an offer.”

On the Alloy side, Shandler says, “I was lucky early on to read Katie’s writing. Joelle had responded to her query, and once Katie sent the entire novel, I could not put it down – that’s very rare.”

Shandler says that Cotugno’s deal was typical of Alloy’s agreements with authors. “We offer a fairly low advance [in the four- to low-five-figure category] guaranteed against future advances. From there, we hopefully get a sale that benefits everyone.”

To that end, How to Love was submitted to more than a dozen publishers, and “the book has had tremendous response,” according to Shandler. Balzer ultimately landed the project. “Katie’s writing blew me away,” Balzer says. “The voice is so evocative and authentic. I was impressed that the characters were very well developed and nuanced – and they have a chemistry that leaped off the page.” Balzer believes that How to Love is poised to fit nicely on the Balzer + Bray list. “I was looking for special contemporary fiction with emotional weight,” she says. “It’s the perfect blend of literary and commercial – it moves you and makes you think.”

Preparing How to Love for publication remains a true collaboration, according to all parties involved. Cotugno has spent several months doing rounds of edits and “hashing out lots of ideas,” says Shandler, with editor Hobeika and the creative team at Alloy, which also includes company president Josh Bank.And she recently met with Balzer, who has contributed her own notes and suggestions. Cotugno says the process has reminded her a little of the workshops she knew from college. “My initial worry was that with so many voices I’d get lost in the shuffle. But it really feels like a conversation with a common goal,” she says. And she is pleased with her work’s evolution thus far. “Everyone has been fantastic, and they always have insightful things to say,” she adds. “The novel is so much better than it could have been.”

Marketing plans for both book and author are still being developed. “It’s a bit early,” says Balzer, “but we always have our basic strategy in place from the beginning. We will be positioning the book for Valentine’s Day promotions, and we’ll be introducing Katie as a major new voice.” She adds that the effort will involve distributing early reading copies, involving bloggers, and developing other special content. “The book is a prime crossover candidate as well,” Balzer says. “Moms will like it as much as their teen daughters do.”

As part of the broader picture, Shandler notes that there have been two pre-empts for translation rights in France and Italy, which she says are “very significant deals.” Alloy’s West Coast office is looking at actively developing the book for TV and film, “but there is nothing to speak of yet,” Shandler says. “How to Love is tonally different from everything we have on TV,” she explains. “It’s somewhat more literary, and quieter. We’ll see what kind of life it will have.”

Cotugno’s second book is not a sequel, and will likely be published the year after How to Love. “I’m making a giant list of what I’d want to work on,” she says. “Right now I’m focused on the next round of edits for How to Love, but probably by the end of summer I’ll start on the new book. I’m having such a good time.”

Going forward, Shandler says that projects from the Collaborative will happen organically, though she would love to discover a few manuscripts each year. “It needs to be something very special,” she says. “With Katie, we found a concept and writing that we loved – she’s the whole package.”

Shandler is hoping, naturally, that there are more terrific finds to come. “Our expertise is in something very specific,” she says. “But ideas from the Collaborative can broaden our horizons. The main thing is having the opportunity to work with new writers. It’s been a great new experience for us.”