Congratulations to the 2016 PW Star Watch finalists. Read on to learn more about them, one of whom will be chosen as the "superstar" at our gala event on September 15, and be awarded a trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Random House Publishing Group, New York
“I love how often my days are totally surprising. Any time the phone rings it could bring a new piece of business that will change me as a reader forever.”
In 2008, less than six years after he joined Dial Press, a young Eaker discovered an even younger Téa Obreht and published her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. The bestselling book was a National Book Award finalist and won the U.K.’s Orange Prize for Fiction, which recognizes women’s writing.
Susan Kamil, executive vice president and publisher of Random House and the Dial Press, spotted Eaker’s talent before he was officially hired. “Even his reader’s report as a candidate was superior to those with far more experience,” she says. “His insight into character, his innate understanding of structure, his editorial strategy to improve the material, his love of literature, was clear, and brilliant,” she adds.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you can judge an editor by his list. In Eaker’s case, his acquisitions and projects continue to affirm Kamil’s initial impression of him. In 2015, he again had a hit with a debut novel, the widely praised and bestselling Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont. Eaker doesn’t only focus on fiction debuts. He was the guiding force behind Son of a Gun, by Justin St. Germain, winner of the 2013 Barnes & Noble Discover Award in the nonfiction category; cultural critic Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour; Thunderstruck & Other Stories, a collection by the National Book Award finalist Elizabeth McKracken; and Get in Trouble, a collection by Kelly Link that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
This year, Eaker says he is “thrilled by the critical response to Hisham Matar’s brilliant memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, about Matar’s journey home to his native Libya in search of answers regarding his father’s disappearance.”
On the horizon are a number of projects that Eaker is particularly excited about, including a historical thriller, The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game. March will bring The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, the long-awaited new novel from The Good Thief author Hannah Tinti about a father in a New England fishing village who is trying to protect his daughter from the legacy of his criminal past.
And, of course, there is a debut novel, which should come as no surprise as Eaker describes himself as an editor who finds the words “first novel” tantalizing and says “the privilege of being able to pass that excitement on to other readers never gets old.” That privilege will be his again with The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson, set in the hallways of a California high school.
Director of Communications
Kensington Books, New York
“We are here to be of service to readers, our colleagues, and, above all, our authors.”
At her first job in publishing, at a small literary agency, Engstrand was struck by the industry’s “us vs. them” mentality, with agents and others outside the houses doing everything they can for authors while in-house staff was not consistently supportive of them. “The antagonistic dynamic isn’t as strong now,” she says, “but it left a strong impression on me back then.” When she began to work for publishing houses, she recalls, “I brought with me a very strong sense that there needed to be more people inside the houses who were advocating for authors.” At Kensington, she is credited with developing a culture of service. “Whether I’m pitching an author’s book to media, collaborating with a bookstore on an event, or coming up with strategies for our sales reps to use, my job is to do everything I can to support our authors’ careers,” Engstrand says.
One of her first goals as communications director was to “de-silo,” as she puts it, the publicity and marketing departments to form one unified group. Engstrand felt that the separate areas created redundancies and were essentially running separate campaigns with inconsistent messaging for the same book. As a single unit, she says, “we’ve been able to create areas of genre or audience-based specialization within the department, which means our campaigns are more effective and targeted.”
The genre-based specialization will come in handy in 2017, with the launch of a science fiction imprint within Kensington’s Lyrical Press line. The nonfiction list is expanding as well, with new releases, including Running with Raven, by Laura Lee Huttenbach, and a book by M. William Phelps that Engstrand describes as a “groundbreaking crime memoir.”
Engstrand is also looking forward to working with firmly established authors who are new to Kensington whom she believes jumped to the press “because they knew our reputation for partnering with authors on all levels and investing in long-term career growth.” Lindsay McKenna is one such author, launching a new western/military veteran romance series with Kensington in November. Others include Davis Bunn, whose first novel with the press, Miramar Bay, will publish in April. And she’s excited to have the cozy mystery writer Ellery Adams and the historical romance author Madeline Hunter on upcoming lists.
But what thrills Engstrand most is “every time I’m able to get an author’s work into the hands of a new reader. Whenever I’m able to contribute in some way to the growth and continuation of an author’s career, that makes me proud.”
Left Bank Books, St. Louis
“Meeting Wintaye [at Winter Institute 2016] and talking to her just gave me so much hope and optimism for the future of the bookselling industry when someone like her is part of it.” —Claire Kirch, contributing editor, PW
In the aftermath of the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, Left Bank Books stood front and center in the community’s response. Last year, in an article by Kirch, the store’s owners, Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steel, were given special recognition “for exemplifying during a time of crisis what an independent bookstore can and should do to best serve its community.” During the demonstrations that roiled St. Louis, not only did Left Bank stay open when other businesses were shutting down, but store personnel created and posted online a reading list titled “Black Lives Matter.” The suggested books were selected for those who wanted to better understand the issues and set the incident within a larger historical context.
Gebru, only four years out of college and already a store manager, was instrumental in orchestrating the store’s response, creating the reading list, and working closely with Kleindienst and Steel about educating the community. As the press liaison, along with Steel, she was one of the two public faces of the store. But Gebru prefers not to think of these accomplishments as hers alone. Instead, she says, “I’ll talk about how proud I am of being part of a bookstore that has never shied away from its community.” She adds, “Its mission—and mine—is to change conversations and change people in ways that only a bookstore can.”
Gebru cites the store’s work with the Black Lives Matter movement as a great example of this. In addition to the expanding reading list that she helps curate and which now has 77 titles on it, the store ships yard signs to individuals, churches, and neighborhood groups across the country. She calls her involvement in this “life-changing.”
As the leader of the Ferguson Reads reading group for two years, Gebru has received some pushback from people upset that the store has taken such as strong stand, but she remains undeterred. “Using our voice in matters of social justice is a core tenant of community bookselling,” Gebru says.
In a less-charged arena, Gebru created and administers Left Bank’s first-editions subscription program, This Just In, which introduces debut authors, many from small presses. Gebru enjoys championing these underrepresented authors and “giving them a boost so early in their careers.”
HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York
“Nothing motivates me more than the fan letters from kids and teens who say that a book I work on improved their lives.”
Growing up in Georgia, Harwell says, he not only loved and devoured books but later realized he needed them: “From Goosebumps and Redwall to Lois Duncan and Harry Potter, I especially love genre stories, which allowed me to escape my surroundings and find order in their clearly defined—if incredibly high—stakes.” Harwell always keeps in mind the kids “who are desperately looking for themselves in fiction, often at the same time that they’re looking for that order or escapism.”
In addition to his caring and empathy for his readers and authors, Harwell is savvy. When he saw the success of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he had the notion that there was room for more photographically illustrated horror novels in the YA market—and he was right. He signed the author Madeleine Roux to create what became the bestselling Asylum series.
Another success is Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, a graphic novel that was a National Book Award finalist, an Eisner Award winner, and a bestseller. Harwell discovered Stevenson while she was still at the Maryland Institute College of Art, posting early pages of her webcomic. “I had previously seen her pop-culture-skewering art online and knew that she was a genius,” says Harwell, who was immensely gratified by the success of Nimona. He’ll be working with Stevenson again for a new graphic novel series, 4 Wizards, conceived with Todd Casey and featuring the colorist Marta Laiho.
Harwell is just as eager to publish new fiction from Roux and Adam Silvera. In addition to her Asylum series, Roux is taking a turn for the gothic in her upcoming House of Furies. Silvera, Harwell says, “is probing the meaning of life and death in the information age in his unconventional love story They Both Die at the End.”
The four colleagues who nominated Harwell wrote that they “see a very bright future in the children’s publishing industry for Andrew, with his blend of creativity, smarts, and ability to inspire others.” They also praised Harwell’s deep involvement with the children’s books community.
Harwell sits on We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Grant committee and has authored his own children’s book, Spider Ring, which was named an International Literacy Association Children’s Choice.
Two Dollar Radio, Columbus, Ohio
“Our books and films aren’t for everyone. Our work is for the disillusioned and disaffected, the adventurous and independent spirits who thirst for more, who push boundaries and like to witness others test their limits. We know we’re not alone. Let’s make some noise.” —Eric Obenauf & Eliza Wood-Obenauf, founders, Two Dollar Radio
A husband-and-wife team, a list of only five to six books a year, and a base in Columbus, Ohio. These are not what most would consider the elements of a strong foundation for a successful publishing venture, yet Two Dollar Radio, founded in 2005 by Eric Obenauf and his wife, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, is just that. It is a very small, very independent fish in a very big pond—and it is making disproportionate waves.
The Los Angeles Times called Two Dollar Radio one of the very few publishers who provide the industry with “an air of possibility, the belief that the future was very much in play.” Publishing Perspectives dubbed Two Dollar Radio “a budding literary movement,” and the Atlantic wrote that the press is “the publisher of some of the best gritty Americana novels of the past decade.”
Rather than use the overused descriptor “carefully curated,” the Obenaufs say on their website that “Two Dollar Radio functions on a no-bullets-wasted policy”—no fluff, no coloring books or bathroom joke books. With over a decade behind them, Obenauf says he is especially proud that “we’ve never sacrificed our vision or idealism in hopes of achieving higher sales.” Instead, they focus on what they characterize as bold work: “subversive, original, and highly creative.”
Last year, Obenauf published Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star and Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones, both of which won accolades and appeared on multiple best-books-of-the-year lists. The press has also published such writers as Rudolph Wurlitzer, Jay Neugeboren, Amy Koppelman, and Shane Jones.
The forthcoming list features several titles about which Obenauf is particularly excited, including Sirens, the first work of nonfiction by acclaimed novelist Joshua Mohr, whose first three novels were with Two Dollar Radio. A comic Southern horror debut by J.D. Wilkes, the charismatic front man of the Legendary Shack Shakers, a rockabilly/blues band from Paducah, Ky., points to why the press is known for category-averse books. Also on the horizon is the English-language debut of the Slovak writer Jana Beñová, whose book Seeing People Off won the European Union Prize for Literature. And, lastly, Obenauf gives a shout out to an upcoming debut, Found Audio, “that is the most unsettling and mysterious project that has ever come across my desk.”
As if that’s not enough for a tiny press, Two Dollar Radio also produces films. What’s really impressive, though, is that Obenauf can do all this and maintain his sense of humor. When asked to share additional thoughts on why he was nominated for Star Watch, he replied, “My hair?”