This article is the first in an occasional series examining global success stories in children’s and YA publishing.
Vicki Grant, who lives in Nova Scotia, had written 14 YA and middle grade books, most published by Orca, without making much of a splash outside her native Canada. Then she hit upon love, and a plot for her 15th novel, which should raise her profile considerably—in Canada and all around the world.
Rights to 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You, a romantic comedy that explores whether there’s a scientific way to fall in love, have sold into 17 foreign territories, months before the book’s publication. That will happen in October, when Running Press releases the book in the U.S. and Canada.
“I think a lot of people understand that the idea that there’s something you could do to engineer love is appealing in any language,” said Grant in a telephone interview from her summer home in Port Joli, a small village on Nova Scotia’s southeast coast.
The inspiration for the book sprang from two sources: first, a very part-time job once held by Grant’s daughter, now 22, who earned “beer money” during college by offering herself up as a guinea pig for the psychology department, which paid subjects a small fee to participate in various research studies.
“I always thought there was a story in teenagers being used for experiments,” Grant said, “but I had never settled on what the experiment would be.”
Then in 2015, Grant (and countless others) read an essay by Mandy Len Catron, a writing instructor at the University of British Columbia, about a psychology study conducted in the 1990s that explored whether a romantic connection between two strangers could be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of 36 questions. The thesis was that a close relationship might be quickly established through the reciprocal sharing of increasingly personal information. Catron confessed she used the questions to find love herself. Her essay, published as part of the New York Times’ Modern Love series, went viral.
“When I read it I immediately thought, oh my God, that’s such a YA book,” said Grant, whose novel begins with a doctoral candidate explaining to her female lead, Hildy, that the decades-old study was being updated to establish how the digital age has changed the way intimacy is experienced. “Basically, we want to see how young people who’ve grown up with 1,200 online ‘friends’ might respond to intense face-to-face emotional sharing,” the researcher explains.
Grant’s agent, Fiona Kenshole of the Transatlantic Agency, was not immediately sold on the idea of a novel based on academic research, but got onboard after reading the manuscript, which is written in a combination of prose, dialogue, and text messages. “Her genius was to turn the research into something very lively and funny, and yet, substantial.” In a joint sale for world English rights, Kenshole accepted a preempt from Hot Key Books (which will publish in Australia and the U.K.) and Running Press, which was expanding its YA list after being acquired by Hachette in 2016.
Adrienne Szpyrka, who edited the book at Running Press, said, “I think more than anything the story just has such a great hook. Who doesn’t want to know more about questions that could help you fall in love?”
Kenshole’s next mission was to make sure the title stood out at the Bologna Book Fair (“Everyone always wants to justify their airfare,” she said) among the many other YA titles Hachette would be presenting. She also thought 36 Questions might be Grant’s best chance to have a hit. “Vicki is moderately recognized in Canada but not anywhere else,” the agent said. “I was worried that she was heading toward that midlist plateau that you always dread.”
So before heading to Italy, Kenshole did some research herself. “I Googled the Times essay and found that every other country had picked up on the Modern Love essay and had their own reporter do a version,” she said. “So I took screen grabs of each of the stories, written in their own language, and sent them to all of the editors I wanted to reach out to.”
That worked. Before she left for the book fair, Korea’s Frombooks had already acquired the book at auction; same with Indonesia’s Gramedia PT. Not huge markets but a solid start. “Then the Italians [Mondadori] bought it in a preempt two weeks before Bologna and that was exciting.”
By the time she got to Bologna, 36 Questions was in demand. More pre-empts. More auctions. “There was a very heated auction in Germany and eventually the book sold there for considerably more than the U.S. rights,” Kenshole said.
The winning editor, Julia Bauer at Heyne fliegt, found the concept irresistible; its themes, universal. “The book reads like a very modern screwball comedy,” Bauer said. “And the hook is just fantastic. As soon as you hear about the 36 questions, you get curious, you want to read more about it, and test them yourself.”
One of the key factors that led to her team’s interest, she said, was their sense that the novel would almost sell itself. “As soon as we pitched the book, everyone came up with ideas for marketing. We plan to shoot a trailer in Munich with short interviews of pedestrians. And we’ll have numerous online activities to be centered on the question, ‘Can love be engineered?’ ”
The universality of Hildy and fellow test subject Paul’s experience is something that Running Press editor Szpyrka said that she and Grant worked to achieve in the editing process.
“The story takes place in Canada, but since we were releasing it for a U.S. market, and since the setting wasn’t particularly important to the story, Vicki downplayed some of those details, so that readers anywhere could imagine the story taking place near them,” she said. “I wonder if that’s a small part of why this works so well, even outside of North America.”
To date, the novel has sold into 17 territories, including France, Spain, Brazil, Israel, and Turkey, where editor Tuğçe Nida Sevin of Penguen Kitap thinks the book is a natural fit with something teenagers are already drawn to—online psychological quizzes. “We are aware of how these type of tests are popular on social media, how viral they can be in a few days, if not in a few hours,” Sevin said. Penguen plans to work closely with bookstagrammers and booktubers to promote the title.
Kenshole is thrilled that so many editors saw the possibilities so quickly. “It’s really, really hard to spot a winner from an outset,” she said. “This book is beautifully written, but so many books are. I think the time was right for a story that is lovely and light but tackles other topics, too, like the way we judge people and put labels on them. It could be a beach read but it’s also got a lot more happening than your average rom-com.”
36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant. Running Press, $17.99 Oct. 17 ISBN 978-0-7624-6318-3