I had a grade school teacher who liked to tell us that patience is a virtue and that good things come to those who wait—messages that never seemed to penetrate the screaming skulls of her impatient charges. In publishing, it often seems that good things don’t come to those who wait. Good things go to the preemptors, with “you snooze, you lose” being the order of the day.
Sometimes, however, patience is rewarded. In October, I’m publishing at Picador A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding. I had to wait more than 20 years for it, and for him.
Here’s how it went down: in 1994, just days after I’d been promoted to editor-in-chief of William Morrow, I was looking for books that would fit into a tradition that included works by authors such as Paul Scott, Gail Godwin, and John Irving, when one miraculously arrived on my desk. It was called Simple Prayers and was the first novel by a young writer named Michael Golding.
There’s a breathless feeling to reading a great submission—you keep turning the pages, captivated, but you’re also on the edge of your seat wondering if it will hold up. Will it stay this good? Will it surprise in ways that will later seem inevitable? Simple Prayers did all that and more. There was soon an auction, and I bid aggressively. But eventually I reached my limit and was out, and heartbroken.
I decided to write Michael a letter, telling him that I’d love to meet him, and that if he was ever in New York, he should let me know. Months went by, and then I got a call: Michael was in New York.
I don’t remember much of what we discussed the evening we met (we had a lot to drink). But I do remember telling him that one day I would be his publisher.
Simple Prayers sold all over the world. Michael wrote and published a second novel and also forged a successful career as a screenwriter and teacher. Over the following years, we kept in vague touch. I think we exchanged two or three letters in the late ’90s and met once for lunch. I left Morrow and went to work for Hyperion. More years passed.
After 11 years at Hyperion, I quit to start a website and pursue my own writing. By then Michael and I had lost touch, except for one email exchange in 2012, after he found me on Goodreads. He told me that he was working on a new novel set in 13th-century Persia, Spain, and North Africa.
Two more years passed. I sold my Web company to Macmillan and began running the site for it, also acquiring books for its various imprints. Then a few months later, I received another email from Michael, this time with a manuscript attached. After seven years of daily work, he’d just finished his new novel.
I started reading it at my desk and couldn’t stop. The story of a boy born with four ears who joins a Sufi monastery and overcomes staggering obstacles on his path to transcendence, the book moved me deeply, producing the same breathless feeling I’d had all those years before reading Simple Prayers. When I got to its perfect ending, I wanted to start again from page one. But first I wanted to call Michael.
When we talked, Michael told me that working on this book had kept him sane through a difficult seven-year period, filled with emotional, financial, and spiritual turmoil, which included coming out as a gay man. He hadn’t heard that I was back in publishing. He’d just sent me the manuscript because he wanted me to read it. So he was more than a little surprised when I told him that I’d already shown it to Stephen Morrison, Picador’s publisher, and that he loved it as much as I did. Stephen—who’d written his thesis on Sufism—agreed that we had to publish it.
My path from here was now obvious. I’d waited more than 20 years for this opportunity, but I didn’t wait more than five minutes before I picked up the phone and called Michael’s agent to preempt A Poet of the Invisible World. Patience may be a virtue, but at age 53, I was not going to wait another 20 years to publish Michael Golding. Especially when books like this only come around every 20 years or so.
Will Schwalbe is executive v-p, editorial development and content innovation, at Macmillan. He’s the author of The End of Your Life Book Club.