Margo Shickmanter, executive editor at Avid Reader Press, was standing in line at the Seattle airport, about to board a flight home to New York, when an eye-catching email appeared on her phone. Not long before, some British editor friends had tipped her off to a much-buzzed-about manuscript that had just sold in the U.K. Now, the manuscript, for a debut novel by Kaliane Bradley called The Ministry of Time, was sitting in her inbox. It was March 4, 2023.

“I ended up reading the whole book over the course of the plane ride and stepping out into the airport in New York City totally galaxy-brained by it,” Shickmanter recalled. “Not only did I feel like I had barely blinked for the entire ride, I felt like I had never read anything like it.” She knew she had to acquire it.

“Because I couldn’t face the prospect of not publishing this book once I’d read it, I decided I wanted to preempt it over the weekend,” she said, “something I’ve never done before or since.” But there was a hitch—Bradley’s agent, Chris Wellbelove of Aitken Alexander Associates in London, was away on vacation and wasn’t picking up his phone. “I spent the rest of the day resigning myself to the fact that it was going to be a long drawn-out competition.”

That Saturday, Shickmanter was in the shower when her phone rang. It was Wellbelove, who was in between courses at dinner in Mallorca. “I felt like I had no choice but to turn off the shower and sit in the tub with shampoo dripping down my face and tell him all the reasons why I loved the book and try to preempt it right then and there,” she remembered. “So now I can cross off making a business deal from the tub, I guess!”

Wellbelove wasn’t surprised by how impressed Shickmanter had been with Bradley’s work—he had been similarly captivated when he first encountered a short story of hers in a U.K. literary journal in 2016. Upon reading it, he wrote to Bradley about representation, and whenever she published a new story, Wellbelove would read it and write to her again. “Each time she’d patiently let me know that there wasn’t yet a project for an agent to work on,” Wellbelove said, “and I’d go back to waiting for the next story to publish, convinced that one day there would be a novel, and that when it did arrive it would be special.”

The first draft of The Ministry of Time arrived in late 2021. Bradley had spent the spring and summer nursing an obsession with historical polar exploration, and particularly the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. She couldn’t help but write about it. “That first draft came very quickly”—in just 11 weeks—”because it was for fun,” Bradley said. The manuscript needed work when she brought it to Wellbelove, and the two worked on it together for just over a year. “I’m so glad we did that, and that Chris is the sort of agent who’s willing to put in the work,” Bradley said. “It’s a far better book for it.”

Part Outlander, part John Le Carré, The Ministry of Time imagines a near future in which the government is testing the viability of time-travel by transporting various people from history to the present. The speculative novel centers on a young civil servant, an unnamed woman, who is tasked with chaperoning Commander Graham Gore, a British explorer who died on the Franklin expedition, as he navigates contemporary life. Soon, the stakes of her assignment become much higher than she ever anticipated.

The book went out on submission in February 2023, which Wellbelove hoped “would put us a little ahead” of last April's London Book Fair. “There’s always a little trepidation when you send out a new book,” he said, “especially one by a debut writer.” But within just two days of submission, it had competing preempts in the U.K. Federico Andornino at Sceptre acquired it just before Wellbelove went on vacation at the start of March. “My plan was to make a U.S. submission once I got back,” said Wellbelove, “but Margo had other ideas.” (Adornino and Shickmanter edited the book together, which the latter said was “honestly a lot of fun.”)

Once the U.S. deal with Avid Reader was inked, things moved fast. The same weekend of Schickmanter’s bathtub phone call, the rights team at Aitken Alexander began fielding international offers, and by week’s end had accepted preempts from Autrement in France and Kagge in Norway, with ongoing auctions in Finland (won by TAMMI), Germany (Penguin Verlag), Italy (Mondadori), and Spain (Salamandra). “By the time the London Book Fair came around we’d closed in 14 or 15 territories, with almost every deal at auction or in a preempt,” Wellbelove said.

An auction for film and TV rights soon followed. “Ordinarily we might run the film and TV submission after most of the publishing side has been done, but after Margo’s preempt we decided to submit right away, largely to try and contain the number of companies offering,” Wellbelove said. “That plan did not work.” After a 21-way auction, with bidders from the U.K. and U.S., a television adaptation is now underway. Wellbelove was unable to comment further but said that further details would be available in "the not-too-distant future."

The team at Avid Reader has not been at all shocked by the response to The Ministry of Time, which will publish in the U.S. on May 7. Associate director of publicity Alexandra Primiani, who is heading up the campaign for the book, calls it “effortlessly readable, all while displaying the best parts of genre and literary fiction.” Her publicity efforts hinge on strategically targeting critics and reviewers, particularly of genre fiction. The publisher will be putting serious marketing muscle behind the book: the Simon & Schuster sales force selected it as the season’s pick for Top Shelf, a company-wide title discovery program that spotlights one book per season to get behind and break out with bookstores, consumers, and the industry. (Previous Top Shelf picks include Zakiya Dalila Harris's The Other Black Girl and Jesmyn Ward's Let Us Descend.) And on the publicity side, ARC mailings will include what Primiani calls “highly designed, impressionable pieces of ephemera—including some swag items we've never produced for any prior books.”

Wellbelove is still glowing from the industry response. “I don’t think an agent ever expects a submission to go as well as this one eventually did—this kind of outcome is very rare,” he said, “and I think speaks to the number of different readers the book might be for.” Bradley, too, understands that her experience as a debut author has been anomalous: “In some ways, the sheer dream-come-true quality of the whole process is the hardest part; I know the likelihood of everything lining up like this again is close to nil.” Nevertheless, she is savoring her success in the present: “I still wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because I’m so excited that my novel is going to be published.”