For those involved in bringing Armand Baltazar’s debut novel to readers, patience has paid off.
Though rights to the trilogy were sold in 2014, the first installment, Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic (HarperCollins/Tegen, Oct.) is just now arriving in bookstores—with a 75,000-copy first printing. The foreign rights team didn’t take the manuscript to Bologna until 2016 because they believed presenting something closer to a finished product would yield better results.
“We wanted to wait till we had the full copyedited text as well as cover art and finished illustrations from the first two chapters before submitting abroad,” said Will Roberts, who handles children’s and YA foreign rights sales at the Gernert Company. “Because it was such an ambitious, unique novel, we wanted to make sure that foreign publishers had a clear sense of the narrative scope, the amazing visual component, and how HarperCollins was positioning it, before they considered the series.”
That worked. Timeless, a middle grade fantasy, has sold into 16 territories so far, including France, Germany, Italy, and China.
Those sales are made even more impressive by the fact that Timeless is a publishing challenge: a huge book, clocking in at 624 pages, and tipping the scale at 2.6 pounds with more than 150 full-color illustrations. It was also important to the author, a former designer at Pixar, that foreign publishers pledge to publish the full trilogy.
“Foreign publishers have become a little more hesitant to commit to multiple books,” Roberts said. “But with a story of this scope, you want to make sure a publisher is fully onboard so you don’t leave readers hanging. We were asking for a commitment.”
Timeless tells the story of Diego—modeled after Baltazar’s own son—who lives in New Chicago after a catastrophic “time collision” has restructured the earth and jumbled its history. Dinosaurs coexist with buffalo; robots ply the same rivers as steamships. Diego’s middle school is not just a melting pot of kids from different places, but from different eras. His best friends hail from Victorian England and the U.S.—in the 1920s and the 1980s.
On his 13th birthday, Diego learns he has a special gift, one he’ll need after his father, an engineer, is kidnapped by an enemy group. He and his friends will have to save Dad and their world from forces that would rather keep cultures distinct.
The original manuscript, with sample art, came to Seth Fishman at the Gernert Company via Baltazar’s agent at CAA. Fox was circling with an offer for film rights but the series didn’t yet have a publisher. Fishman approached HarperCollins Children’s Books because of its corporate ties to Fox.
“One of the problems with Hollywood is that it’s sometimes hard for a publisher to tell just how enthusiastic a film company actually is,” Fishman said. “This way, they would believe me when I said there was going to be an option.”
World English rights for three books went to Harper’s Katherine Tegen imprint, with Ben Rosenthal editing. Rosenthal had been at the company for two weeks. “It was a little bit of trial by fire,” he admits.
Though Baltazar had formal art training and had worked in animation at DreamWorks, Walt Disney, and at Pixar, where he was a senior designer, he had never written a novel before.
“There was a complete manuscript and artwork, but we had to take the whole thing apart in order to find a way to integrate them,” Rosenthal said. Baltazar had not skimped on the artwork. “The first time we laid it out, it was 900 pages.”
Knowing that the book had strong international potential, Rosenthal had an additional burden of making sure art and text would work in translation. “When you translate it into a character system or even into Spanish or German, any language that tends to use more words than English, you have to make sure the art falls in the right spot for text you haven’t even seen,” he said. “It was like putting together a puzzle.”
Editor and author agreed to combine some artwork and cut text. Rosenthal worried for Baltazar’s health. “I think he didn’t sleep for six to eight months,” he said. The two spent hundreds of hours on the phone. “Armand has a very distinct style but it had to be adapted to work as a book,” Rosenthal said. “The artwork read a lot like a film, successive images that were like storyboards.”
Less than a week after Baltazar signed with HarperCollins, Fox picked up the movie rights, with Ridley Scott signed on as producer.
Baltazar’s background in film animation and the Fox/Ridley Scott “seal of approval,” as Roberts called it, now became key selling points with foreign publishers. “When we made the pitch, that fact that he had come from Pixar was one of the lead loglines,” said Roberts. “People associate Pixar not only with amazing illustration but with great storytelling. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door.”
Karine Sol, editorial director with Bayard Editions Jeunesse, which won the rights to publish Timeless in France at a “heated auction,” said “sales of the book can fly away” when there is film potential, citing the strong bump given to all three volumes of the Miss Peregrine series by Ransom Riggs after the film release. Italy’s Il Castoro, which acquired Timeless in a preempt, even included a “film bonus” in its offer. “This would be a perfect book to render in a movie,” said publisher Pico Floridi.
That Baltazar’s latest credential is with Pixar, specifically, is icing on the cake, said Martina Patzer, acquiring editor at cbj Verlag in Munich. “Pixar movies are very well known in Germany,” she said. “Any illustrated book that can refer to a visual language that is already known and loved does benefit from that fact.”
Fishman has been thrilled with the foreign reception. “This is the first children’s title of mine that was a clear ‘book of the fair,’ ” Fishman said. “With the globalization of film and TV, to sell a book that goes on to be the lead title in Germany and Canada, these things really matter, not just to me or to Armand but to Fox,” he said.
Go Big or Go Home
The fact that the book would be a logistical challenge to publish was not only conquerable, Roberts said, it turned out to be an asset. “It would be easy to be intimidated by the size and scope of this but that actually became one of the big selling points,” he said. “Increasingly, a hardcover book has to be an art object. In the contemporary marketplace, people who are buying a hardcover book want it to be something that they are happy to display on their shelves.”
Sol, the French editor, said a fall 2018 release is planned with just that in mind. “This book, in color, could be a lovely gift for Christmas.” A thick, beautifully illustrated book is also appealing to Patzer of cbj Verlag. “Thanks to the fixed book prices in German-speaking countries, we still have a very vibrant book market with a bookshop in nearly every small town,” she said. “This kind of book, with its unique design elements and stunning illustrations, will be very important to those booksellers.”
Even at 624 pages, no editor worried that middle-grade readers would be intimidated. “Our readers would not mind the size of the book,” said Il Castor’s Floridi, who noted that the amount of artwork will likely lessen any hesitancy caused by the book’s size. “Thanks to Harry Potter, readers are no longer intimidated by big books,” said Sol. “They like when there is a strong, fantastic world.”
Meanwhile, Rosenthal and Baltazar are hard at work on book two. “We learned a lot and I think it will help us with the rest of the series,” Rosenthal said. “Armand has the whole series planned and we’re hoping to speed it up so it’s not two years between books, but it could be,” he said, adding, “I haven’t even told sales that yet.”
Perhaps he can point out how well patience has already worked.
Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar. HarperCollins/Tegen, $19.99 ISBN 978-0-06-240236-3