Earlier this week there was concern among industry insiders about the dearth of major projects circulating in the run-up to the London Book Fair. The question people were asking: 'Where are all the big books?' Now, with the fair just days away—it begins on Tuesday—the chatter has turned to silence as a number of major sales have closed in the U.S., among them the acquisition of a debut novel, by a 25-year-old, for a rumored seven figures.
That rumored seven-figure deal is for a book that some think will be one of the most talked-about of the fair, a novel called Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Eric Simonoff at William Morris Endeavor just closed a North American rights deal with Knopf’s Jordan Pavlin, who won the book in a 10-bidder auction. The novel is about two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, born in different villages and unknown to each other, whose lives take wildly disparate paths. Pavlin called Homegoing “as beautiful and relevant a novel as any I’ve ever read.” She added that the young author, who was born in Ghana but grew up in Huntsville, Ala., “writes about race and history and identity and love with astonishing authority.” Simonoff confirmed that, at press time, auctions were underway in the U.K.; Sweden; Holland; Spain; Hungary; France; and Italy.
Another much-talked about novel, The Wangs V. the World, has just sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Also a debut, the book, which is rumored to have fetched a mid-to-high six figure advance, was won by Helen Atsma, who took U.S. rights in an auction that began with 12 editors from eight different publishers. Marc Gerald at the Agency Group handled the sale for Jade Chang, an arts journalist (Glamour, the BBC) who lives in Los Angeles and currently works at Goodreads. The book follows an American clan, the patriarch of which arrived in this country, built a successful cosmetics empire, then lost it all. The acquisition marks Atsma's first since joining HMH last month; she described the book as “an epic story of immigration, riches to rags, and family.” She added that it’s the “rare novel that makes me both laugh out loud and cry.” At press time, Gerald said he expected to have a U.K. auction closed by Monday and that rights have sold in Canada, Brazil, and the Netherlands.
On the nonfiction front, Kirk Johnson’s The Feather Underground has been garnering a notable amount of interest. The book was just acquired by Kathryn Court at Viking for a sum rumored to be in the mid six figures. Katherine Flynn at Kneerim, Williams & Bloom handled the sale for the University of Chicago graduate and current fellow at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The book, which is subtitled A Tale of Beauty, Obsessions, and the World’s Greatest Natural History Crime, is about a 2009 heist pulled off by Edwin Rist, an American studying in London, who nabbed hundreds of bird specimens—both exotic and extinct—from the British Museum. The book is broken down into three sections, Flynn explained, with the first focusing on the heist, the second on “the historical story of how these birds came to be so significant for their role in scientific research,” and the third on the author's delving into the case as he “penetrates the illegal and exotic bird and feather trade.”
Another nonfiction title drumming up interest, which at press time had yet to sell in the U.S., is Ensaf Haidar’s The Voice of Freedom. Haidar is the wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi--the book is subtitled Fight With Me to Save My Husband, Raif Badawi--and was preempted in Germany, by Lubbe, for a sum rumored to be nearly seven figures. Badawi, an activist who created the website Free Saudi Liberals, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 on charges of insulting Islam, and is currently in prison. The book, according to agent Barbara Zitwer, who is representing the title with German agent Christine Prosker, tells both Haidar and Badawi’s stories. In the proposal, Zitwer said the book is “the story of their shared liberal ideas and her fight for her husband’s release.” There is a possibility that Michelle Obama will write the book's introduction—though this has not been finalized—and Zitwer said she thinks she may soon close a deal in Canada, where Haidar is living and seeking asylum.