Author Jennifer Lynn Barnes is well familiar with the excitement that comes with the launch of a new book. She had been through it many times before, having already published 20 novels as the September pub date for her twisty and suspenseful YA series-starter The Inheritance Games (Little, Brown) approached. Buzz had been building around the story of a teen girl who is named heir to the fortune of a billionaire she’s never heard of, and by mid-month, the book had landed on the YA Hardcover New York Times bestseller list—a career-first achievement for Barnes. Sony Pictures TV and Josh Berman’s Osprey Productions secured rights to the book (and its sequel), developing the project for Amazon. Hot on those heels, LBYR has announced the sequel, The Hawthorne Legacy, due out this September. The cover is revealed here for the first time in a PW exclusive.

It’s not unheard of for an established author to experience a breakout hit, but it took Barnes a bit by surprise. “The Inheritance Games was my 21st book,” she said. She had an early start—she published her first novel at the age of 19 and had sold an additional four books before graduating college—and has worked steadily ever since. “There have been many points in my career when the big question on my mind was whether or not I would be able to sell another book at all, so to have this book come out and find the kind of support it has—from my publishing team, from Hollywood, from booksellers, librarians, and readers—has been both wonderful and surreal,” Barnes said. “When I got the call from my editor that The Inheritance Games had made the bestseller list, I just broke down and sobbed for an embarrassingly long time, thinking about all of the books that had come before and how incredibly lucky I was to have a chance like this after 16 years in this business.”

But apart from its splashy debut, The Inheritance Games proved a different kind of project in other ways. The germ of the idea for the book surfaced years ago when Barnes’s parents were building their dream house and asked her if she had any requests for its design. “I only had one: a secret passage,” she recalled. “My dad worked for years on the house—including my secret passage!—and the first time I saw the final product, I was overcome with the feeling that his presence was everywhere in that house, in every little detail. I started thinking about a fictional version of the house: much bigger, much more elaborate, with dozens of secret passages, built by a billionaire who put puzzles, messages, and codes into the design.”

Though she had quickly envisioned this labyrinth setting, Barnes noted that it took years longer to find the right premise and plot to craft her ideal “puzzle book.” She says it came to her one day while she was brainstorming story ideas that involved an ordinary teenager becoming famous overnight. “After coming up with a lot of dark and tragic reasons an ordinary person might suddenly find herself front-page news, I finally jotted down ‘A billionaire leaves her his fortune, and no one knows why,’” Barnes said. “I realized that I finally had the perfect set-up—and the perfect mystery—for the puzzle house book I’d wanted to write for so long: an eccentric, puzzle-obsessed billionaire dies and leaves his fortune to a teenage girl he’s never met, but to receive her inheritance, the girl must move into his sprawling, secret-passage-filled mansion alongside the family he just disinherited.”

With the bones of the book in place, Barnes set to drafting the novel, noting that she took a slightly different approach this time around. “When I’m not writing, I am a psychology professor who has a lab dedicated to studying the psychology of fiction,” she explained, describing how that expertise played a bigger role than ever in the book’s development. “For several years before writing The Inheritance Games, I had been giving craft talks at writing conferences about how writers could use psychological theories about why we as a species love stories to create maximally appealing stories,” she said.

Barnes noted that this thought had long informed her own writing, but that it wasn’t until working on The Inheritance Games that “I sat down with a list of all of the predictions made by all of these different theories and used those predictions as a checklist for what the human mind wants out of a good story. I referred to the list at every stage of the writing process, from titling the book and designing the characters and story to revision. This was really the first book that I pushed myself to use everything I know about the psychology of fiction to try to write a book that really puts all of those theories to the test.”

The Inheritance Games’s path to publication took a bit of a different route as well. Barnes’s finished book was among the more than 1,000 projects that Little, Brown Books for Young Readers acquired from Disney Publishing Group in early 2020. When it arrived at LBYR, “everyone absolutely fell in love with it,” said publicity manager Cheryl Lew. “We saw the immense potential it had to be a standout hit and poured a lot of effort into it, creating an eye-catching cover, designed by art director Karina Granda and created by Katt Phatt, and elevating it in terms of our sales, marketing, and publicity approaches.” Though Barnes was an established author, “We knew we could make a big splash with her first LBYR title,” Lew added.

Barnes’s editor Lisa Yoskowitz, said, “I think this book was a game changer because it delivers on so many levels, for so many readers: it’s a high stakes mystery, a rags-to-riches story full of glamour and wish fulfillment, a puzzle book with layer after layer of intrigue, and a great contemporary romance.”

Of course, marketing and publicity plans were realigned in light of the pandemic, but still forged ahead. Among the highlights, The Inheritance Games was a featured title at several virtual conferences and was selected as a Barnes & Noble YA Book Club Pick and a Readerlink Buzz Reads Pick. Lew says her team “leaned into the narrative itself—the mystery! the riches! the four hot brothers!” to create such efforts on the publisher’s online YA community hub, NOVL, as #OutofContextInheritanceGames teaser quotes, an influencer campaign, a “Which Hawthorne Brother Will You Inherit?” quiz, and a NOVLbox sweepstakes curated by Barnes.

As became the norm in 2020, the LBYR publicity team made a pandemic pivot to set up several virtual events for Barnes in place of in-person ones. Some of those appearances were hosted by Best of Books (in conversation with Karen M. McManus, author of One of Us Is Lying and One of Us Is Next), Blue Willow Bookshop (in conversation with Ally Carter, author of the Gallagher Girls series), Book People (in conversation with Ellie Marney, author of None Shall Sleep), and a Barnes & Noble YA Book Club event with E. Lockhart (author of We Were Liars). “While transitioning her events to a virtual setting was an adjustment,” Lew said, “we found them to be extremely successful and were excited to be able to reach readers all over the country and to put Jennifer in conversation with these other incredible authors.”

Barnes described her experience during a pandemic-era book launch, saying the timing had two big side effects. “The first was that I was able to do many more events than I usually do,” she said. “As a full-time college professor, I am normally limited in how much I can travel, so the move to virtual events actually meant that I was able to interact with my audience a lot more than usual. The second was simply that I did not have the time, energy, or emotional bandwidth to stress about this book’s release the way I might have otherwise. I have two small children who have been home from daycare since March, so the normal crunch of trying to balance my professor job with writing deadlines became so much more intense that there just wasn’t time or mental space for anything other than whatever it was that needed to be done right then.”

More Mystery Ahead

Talking about her forthcoming sequel, Barnes revealed, “The Hawthorne Legacy answers all of the questions that The Inheritance Games raises. Beyond that, readers can expect more puzzles, clues, riddles, family secrets, and plot twists than even the first book had, as well as more room in the story devoted to Avery’s character and relationship arcs.” Barnes says that protagonist Avery spends much of the first book not thinking much beyond her initial shock, and the key question, “why me?” But in the follow-up, “she’s still driven to answer that question, but she also has to start to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants to do with the immense fortune she’s been given,” Barnes said.

Clues to the contents of the new book can be found on its jacket, which spotlights several items including a lit match and a sword. “The challenge of working on The Hawthorne Legacy, or really any second book in a series, is to create an artwork that feels of a piece with the first book, but also distinctly its own,” Granda said of the design. “Luckily, Jen is so good at helping us pull together a unique list of symbols and objects for each book, giving this one its own sources of light and darkness that reveal themselves, literally and metaphorically, in the text.” Granda also spoke more broadly about what went into conceptualizing both covers. “One of the themes I find most striking about the Inheritance Games series is how danger lurks in the setting of beauty, class, and luxury,” she said. “When I stumbled upon Katt Phatt’s portfolio, and the delightful way in which he collages patterns and objects in a way that feels shiny and rich, but also a little bit sinister and dark, I knew he would be the perfect collaborator for this project.”

And looking beyond The Hawthorne Legacy, fans of Avery’s adventures will be heartened to learn that Barnes’s next project is of a similar flavor. “I am finishing up the first draft of a new young adult book that is very much in the vein of The Inheritance Games: a twisted, family-centric, high-society mystery that offers readers a chance to play a game alongside the characters,” she said.

The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Little, Brown, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7595-5763-5