What could be one of the big books of the fall, Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune (Doubleday, Sept.), a historical novel set in Renaissance Italy with undertones of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, almost didn’t make it into print. It took a determined agent, a writer willing to rework the manuscript (for years), and dozens of booksellers who read and liked an early draft to turn around its fate.
“This had to have set a record,” says Ennis, referring to the dozen years he worked on the book, which he calls “ ‘my Vietnam.’ I was in it so deep, I couldn’t get out of it.” In the early 1990s, he published with Grove and Viking and wanted to try something else. When he read Roger Masters’s Fortune Is a River, about a collaboration between Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli to divert the Arno River, he knew he had his characters: Machiavelli, the student of human nature, as the first forensic profiler, and da Vinci, the first CSI. All he needed was a crime, a set of serial murders.
Once Ennis had his premise, he spent a decade researching and writing the book, breaking only to do freelance articles. The first hint of potential roadblocks came when he submitted the book to his agent, who he didn’t think got it. So Ennis sent it over the transom to Dan Lazar at Writers House, who e-mailed him 45 minutes later to ask for the entire book. The manuscript went through a couple of drafts before Lazar sent it out. “I fell flat on my ass,” says Lazar, who worked with Ennis on a second round of revisions. This time when he submitted it, he got a single offer from Lara Hinchberger at McClelland & Stewart in Canada and took it.
The aha moment for breaking out what Lazar was convinced was “a special book” came when his former assistant Nikki Furrer, who owns Pudd’nhead Books in St. Louis, Mo., said, “Why don’t you let me read it.” That’s when Lazar and Ennis decided to print 60 paperbacks on Lulu. “The goal was the Algonquin ad with booksellers. The ideal was 10,” says Lazar. Even though the book hadn’t been published yet, it got dozens of comments, including one from Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, who said, “[it] deserves to be published and published well, and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to hand-sell it to my customers.”
Lazar sent the manuscript out a third time with the edits that Hinchberger made and the quotes. This time Carole Baron at Doubleday made an offer. To date, The Malice of Fortune is scheduled to be published in 10 countries.
Ennis will be signing copies of the galleys with eight pages of bound-in bookseller comments today,
11 a.m.–noon, at the Random House booth (3940). As for what Ennis is working on now, it’s selling the book. And, yes, he did revise it once more before Doubleday printed the galleys.