It's not often an author has a chance to read something in front of a group of powerful publishing people who can have a say in his future. That's what happened, however, to young Ravi Howard, who read part of an award-winning story he'd written at a recent Authors Guild Foundation benefit dinner attended by Harper's Jane Friedman, Cathy Hemming and Michael Morrison and Morrow editor Claire Wachtel. They were so impressed with what they heard that Wachtel had a word with Howard later, then called agent Dorian Karchmar at Barbara Lowenstein Associates the very next day to express her interest. It turns out that Karchmar had already called to tell the editor Howard was working on expanding the story into a novel, and Wachtel was now able to move forward, with very senior backing, to make an "irresistible" six-figure preemptive offer for two books. Howard's reading was of a segment of what will be Like Trees, Walking, a novel based on the last known lynching in the U.S., by the Klan in Mobile, Ala., just over 20 years ago. Wachtel took world rights, and looks for delivery of a manuscript next year.