Some books arrive labeled “can’t miss,” or have such a hefty advance that publishers do everything they can to assure that they won’t miss. But what about the sleepers? Those books that worked their way through the publishing pipeline quietly, launch with little buzz, and somehow find their way to bestseller lists anyway? Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie had been abandoned unread in a box when an editor went on maternity leave and decided not to return. Dusted off and published by her replacement, it has sold 8.8 million copies. Jeff Kinney’s now international bestseller Diary of a Wimpy Kid initially met resistance at Abrams, where some wondered whether kids would buy a book that they could already read for free online at the Poptropica site. Random House acquired Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a first novel published under a pseudonym, for a modest advance. Even those with the highest hopes for that book didn’t dream it would sell two million copies, spend 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and spawn a movement about the importance of being kind.
Nobody loves a good story more than an editor, so we asked editors to tell us how they came to publish their favorite buzzless bestsellers.
The Princess Diaries
by Meg Cabot
In 1998, my boss forwarded me a voicemail from an agent we didn’t know and asked me to follow up on it. Which is what assistant editors do, of course. I read the manuscript immediately. I loved it. Here was a girl who felt real and relatable and insecure, surrounded by a cast of hilarious, fully realized characters. The writing was perfect. With all my vast 20 months of publishing experience, I knew it was special. It wasn’t a quiet book or a book that would easily take awards. There were no sympathetic librarians depicted or heroism in the face of cruel circumstances. There was a dramatic ice cream cone spill and a makeover, though.
We published it a year and a half later, with little else but an iconic, hot-pink jacket, and it became the little book that could. I would arrive at work in the morning and log on to the sales database to check the numbers. Up, up they went. A small initial print run with a modest
reorder the second month. Then a less modest reorder the third month. Then more the fourth month. Maybe it was the fantastic jacket. Maybe it was the word “princess.” Maybe it was the most fun read ever. Who knows exactly why it caught on, but it did. It was thrilling. By the time the movie was released a year later, the book was already a hit. I didn’t realize at the time how rare and magical a publishing event this was, but I also think my inexperience allowed me to see the beauty and possibility in Meg’s story and not misunderstand or dismiss it. —Abigail McAden
● The Princess Diaries was McAden’s first acquisition, bought for an $8,000 advance when she was a 25-year-old assistant editor. The series has sold more than five million copies.
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site
by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
I found Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site buried in our bin of unsolicited manuscripts and I was immediately taken with the concept, the sweetness of the text, and the pitch-perfect title (which never changed). I also responded to the author’s story about how the book came to be. In her cover letter, she described a nighttime routine in which she helped her sons settle down by saying good night to all the things they loved—which, for one of her boys, always included trucks. I thought this was a brilliant approach to bedtime and could see how it would benefit moms and dads of truck-obsessed kids everywhere.
My second thought, though, was that the concept of a bedtime book about trucks was so natural and smart, that a similar book must exist already. I jumped online, but happily found no books that could come close to competing. I called Sherri to share my enthusiasm and make sure she hadn’t sold the book elsewhere. She was lovely to talk to—so excited about the opportunity and ready to collaborate and work hard. Now I didn’t just want to work on the book, I wanted the opportunity to work with this delightful and talented debut author. I took the manuscript to our acquisitions meeting with no doubt that it would pass—which it did, quite quickly and easily. Soon after, the designer, Amelia May Mack, and I were lucky enough to find the perfect illustrator in Tom Lichtenheld. I had the chance to see the book through from acquisition to publication, but I was living out of the country when it first hit the bestseller list. I was over-the-moon thrilled, but not really surprised. I only wished I could be home to celebrate with Sherri, Tom, and the wonderful creative team at Chronicle. —Mary Colgan
● Rinker sold Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site to Chronicle for a $4,000 advance. The title has been on the New York Times list for three years, with more than 850,000 copies in print and rights sold into 23 territories.
When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
(Random House, 2009)
Rebecca and I met in 1997, in an adult short story workshop at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. She was a public defender in the Bronx; I was taking the class to get away from children’s books. After the workshop ended we became part of a small writers’ group. Eventually we both dropped out, and lost touch. In 2003 I was delighted to hear from her, and read an early version of what became her first novel, First Light. Our publishing group admired First Light, and it was that season’s “rep pick”—a great start!
Two years later, I read the first draft of When You Reach Me, and was amazed by what Rebecca had achieved. When it was ready to share in-house, every reader saw its potential. So, we were in a happy situation—a new author whom we loved had written something truly remarkable. Every department came up with great ideas to package, or promote, or sell it.
For me, a small tipping point came in June 2009, before publication in July, when Teachers College at Columbia ordered 800 copies, one for each student in its graduate summer program. The person who ordered it said he’d never heard so much about a book before publication.
In July, it debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. In December, we had inventory, ready for holiday sales. But it appeared on so many best-of-the-year lists that we had to reprint fast. The tipping point: Nancy Pearl praised the book on NPR and mentioned “Newbery.” We rushed printings and kept stores in stock for Christmas. —Wendy Lamb
● In 2010, When You Reach Me won both the Newbery Medal and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. There are nearly 800,000 copies in print.
by Ellen Hopkins
(Simon Pulse, 2004)
I wanted to publish Crank the minute I heard about it. It was 2001; I was in Reno, speaking at a conference. I had also been asked to critique some manuscripts of local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators members. One of them was a lovely picture book by then-unpublished author Ellen Hopkins. But I didn’t publish picture books. I was looking for YA.
As Ellen and I talked, she told me about another story she was working on, a YA novel about a girl addicted to meth. It was based on her daughter’s experiences. Immediately I wanted that story. I had recently read an article in Rolling Stone about meth, the new drug ravaging the country. All I could think was this could be the next Go Ask Alice.
Ellen sent me the first 50 pages, and her writing blew me away. Her poetry was so raw and painful and beautiful. I had planned on waiting for a finished manuscript before bringing it to my editorial team for review. But her pages were so good, I couldn’t resist sharing them. I made Ellen an offer immediately.
The editorial process went smoothly and under the radar of anyone else in the company. But slowly, attention began to be paid. The reviews started coming in and they were all very good. And interest from accounts was strong. But still, this was a debut novel that we hadn’t paid much for. Expectations were low.
When the book was finally published, everything changed. It reached an audience immediately. We had to reprint quickly and often. Then PBS’s Frontline aired an episode about meth, and in it there was a shot of an inmate reading Crank. The shot only lasted a few seconds, but it was long enough to know that the book and the ideas it represented were now part of the larger conversation about meth. Crank had truly become the next Go Ask Alice. —Julia Richardson
● Since the publication of Crank, S&S has published 10 more novels by Hopkins, with a total of five million copies in print.
Little Blue Truck
by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Little Blue Truck is a success story that happened nearly out of the blue! I’m lucky enough to be a part of the Little Blue Truck books now, yet the credit for the original picture book goes to acquiring editor Tamson Weston. It was Tamson who bought the charming text by poet Alice Schertle and thought to send it to Jill McElmurry, an artist we’d never published before.
Alice and Jill had each published a number of well-received children’s books, but hadn’t yet experienced a major breakout hit. The combo was untried and unexpected—but it turned out to be an inspired match-up, as prophesied in a conversation very early in Little Blue Truck’s development. Alice, a seasoned author not given to hyperbole, said casually, “I really want this to sell a million copies. Do you think we can make that happen?” Tamson responded, “We’ll do our best.” Every author, illustrator, and publisher would love this outcome, of course; if only we could predict it!
Little Blue Truck was published in hardcover in 2008, and its good reviews and respectable sales prompted us to plan a companion, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. Yet it was the 2009 board-book edition of Little Blue Truck that put the book on a fast track that just keeps accelerating. Even better, I often hear parents of preschoolers profess the love they and their child have for Blue. And if Pinterest is any indication, Blue has been traveling to every state in America—he’s now the star of countless Little Blue Truck-themed birthday parties. —Jeannette Larson
● There are 1.5 million copies of the board book edition of Little Blue Truck in print.
Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why was acquired by Razorbill back in September 2006. It was originally called Baker’s Dozen: The Autobiography of Hannah Baker. I had arrived at Razorbill just a month earlier. Kristen Pettit (now at Harper) was an editor at Razorbill then and she acquired the book. We both fell in love with it over a weekend and I still have the “I think we should buy it!” emails. It was my first acquisition as a publisher and it was so exciting to support Kristen, who convinced agent Laura Rennert to sell it to us by writing “13 Reasons Why Razorbill should have this novel.” I remember Kristen giving out galleys at ALA midwinter in 2007, saying, “This book will change your life.”
We published in October 2007 and weekly sales grew stronger through that fall and winter. Thirteen Reasons Why finally hit the New York Times list in March 2008. As marketers, we always chased its word-of-mouth success and we made sure that readers felt like they “owned” the novel. Our first major campaign was on YouTube in October 2008 with a voice on cassette (the voice was Olivia Thirlby) and that really boosted sales. Our website has been a hub for teens who want to share their stories for years now. The novel went to #1 in paperback in July 2011.
Jay is currently on a 50 States Against Bullying tour. Jay knows he’s changing lives and we’re proud to say that we will never stop supporting him and his novel. —Ben Schrank
● There are more than 2.2 million copies of Thirteen Reasons Why in print. The book has been published in 35 countries and spent 170 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
by Scott Westerfeld
(Simon Pulse, 2005)
I had just joined Simon Pulse as editorial director. One of the books in the queue to be published was Uglies. The trilogy had been acquired based on a proposal, for a modest advance and without an agent. The acquiring editor, Eloise Flood, had left, so the manuscript had been sitting around for a while. I picked it off the pile, read it, and thought it was brilliant. Very cool and different. In hindsight, so ahead of its time. I love a strong girl protagonist, and Tally was it.
Scott and I got together, which was a little awkward since his book had been neglected. Plus, he came in wearing “nervous-making” engineer boots and a black trench coat. While I was encouraging him to have faith in Simon Pulse, Scott noticed the life-size poster of the basketball superstar Diana Taurasi on my office wall. It turns out that Scott and his wife, Justine, and I are all avid women’s basketball fans. We talked hoops a bit then proceeded to some editorial discussion.
My excitement for the book extended to sales and marketing, and beyond. Plus Uglies had a gorgeous cover. Despite the limited marketing dollars and a conservative first print, the buzz for Uglies continued to grow. Almost two years after publication, Uglies hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Now Uglies has been translated into almost 30 languages, and is in development for television. Widely considered to have started the current teen dystopian trend, the books are contemporary classics with a diverse and passionate fan base. —Bethany Buck
● Simon Pulse bought Uglies for a $7,500 advance. The planned trilogy became a quartet—Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras—and has sold more than four million copies.
Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party
by M.T. Anderson
A decade ago, I went up to Vermont College of Fine Arts to attend the winter residency of the M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. On one particular evening, faculty and students read from their works in progress. Tobin Anderson was part of the roster. I had known he was working on a new novel, but I knew little about it except that it was supposedly different from Feed, the novel we had just published. So when Tobin got up to the podium and read these words: “I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees,” I was filled with a mixture of emotions, but mostly terror. There were at least two words in the first hundred that were completely unknown to me.
I had thought before that evening that Feed would be the highlight of my editorial career. And yet here was Tobin, confounding expectations and moving from the dystopian future into the heart of American history—and again overturning conventional thinking, this time about the Revolutionary War.
I never questioned that we would publish the novel; I just questioned my own ability to edit what turned into two volumes of 18th-century prose. I remember driving home to Boston at about 2 a.m., my car thermometer reading –17 degrees, Tobin’s prose echoing in the otherwise entirely silent winter night. Somewhere along that drive I got my courage back, and by the time I arrived home, I was laughing delightedly at what lay ahead. —Liz Bicknell
● Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party won the 2006 National Book Award. The second volume was a Printz Honor winner. Together, the books have sold 300,000 copies.
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes
by James Dean, illus. by Eric Litwin
Our Pete the Cat story started five years ago with one of our wonderful sales reps, Eric Svenson. He had recently been at a sales call in the South when a bookseller told him about a self-published picture book featuring a groovy blue cat that had taken off regionally. Eric sent us a copy and from the minute we laid eyes on the book, we were hooked. I was completely taken with the simple but perfect text, the vibrant illustrations, and, most importantly, the message that no matter what life throws at you, all will be a-okay!
I made the author and illustrator an offer for the original book and for one untitled story with the hopes that a second book would find an audience as well. When we launched the first book, Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, James Dean and Eric Litwin embarked on a tour that was so successful it took on a life of its own. Through word of mouth, the tour—featuring Eric Litwin performing on guitar and James Dean painting a Pete the Cat on canvas—resulted in countless requests from bookstores, schools, and festivals from coast to coast.
Now, 50 books later (in all formats), Pete the Cat has loved his white shoes, rocked his new school shoes, popped his four groovy buttons, saved Christmas, found magic in some new sunglasses, and made a new friend. Pete has become a bestselling and beloved picture book character. —Margaret Anastas
● Books in the Pete the Cat series have sold more than seven million copies sold and have spent a combined 230 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls series)
by Ally Carter
I was out of the office at a conference when my assistant (Arianne Lewin, now an executive editor at Putnam) called to tell me that a relatively new agent I’d recently spoken with, Kristin Nelson, had submitted a proposal and a few chapters for a teen novel that sounded interesting. Maybe because I had just lost a massive, multi-publisher auction and was feeling competitive, I asked her to fax it over—in 10-point type, to save on hotel printing costs. Risking near-blindness, I read it right away—and realized that this was something so cool and fresh and original, I had to have it. I pre-empted for two books at a healthy level. Even with pre-empt expectations, the book really surprised everyone— Barnes & Noble couldn’t keep it in stock. The second book, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, hit the New York Times list soon after its release. The rest, as they say, is history. —Donna Bray
● Disney-Hyperion published six volumes in the Gallagher Girls series with total sales of more than 2.5 million copies.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
In January 1994 I was a freelance editor screening 400 manuscripts submitted to that year’s Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel Contest. One manuscript was called The Waston Go to Birmingham—1963. I thought, “An ambitious writer—was this about the horrific church bombing?” I marked it for a special look later.
I began to read it on a frozen Saturday, and laughed at the opening: “It was one of those super-duper cold Saturdays.” By the end I knew that Delacorte must publish this book, though it wouldn’t win the contest, since it wasn’t YA.
My colleagues loved it, felt it was an important, moving and hilarious book, and wanted to publish it with passion. We were a small group, and back then there was no way to do a “buzz campaign” as we do now. Efforts were direct and personal. We handed the book to friends across the industry. Terry Borzumato and Andrew Smith in our school and library department did an amazing job of talking it up and getting ARCs to every librarian and teacher they knew. The sales team made the same effort with booksellers, who embraced it. Publicity set up interviews where Chris Curtis described how it felt to go from working in a car factory to publishing an acclaimed novel celebrating his hometown of Flint, Mich.
At every step, the reaction was heartfelt. Glowing reviews said exactly what we hoped. People constantly told us how much they loved it, and about kids who felt the same way. The tipping point was the Newbery Honor—the first time Delacorte had a book recognized by the Newbery committee. —Wendy Lamb
● The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was a 1996 Newbery Honor book. Random House reports 2.8 million copies in print.