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Shana Kelly moved to Denver after years in New York City and London, where she worked for William Morrow. Now that we have her captive, I thought I could coax an inspiring tale out of her, so I asked her to share an unlikely success story. You can join Kelly for a 4-week workshop on the business of publishing, starting April 23. Here’s what she had to say:
By far the most thrilling moment of my career as a literary agent was being a part of the unexpected success of the first novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, PREP. It was unexpected, not because the book wasn’t deserving, but because, to a certain extent, ANY success is a pleasant surprise in publishing.
As a young agent, I began working with Curtis after reading several of her short stories, which fell into my hands after being passed along by an editor and another agent. I connected with her voice, and recognized her talent right away. Curtis had amazing credentials—Stanford, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, lots of non-fiction credits—so I was excited that her writing lived up to the promise of her resume.
More important to me than her obvious skill was the way Curtis’s writing made me feel. I loved these stories. As an agent, you are always hoping to be swept away by a new author, to become emotionally involved in the story, to recognize your own thoughts, insecurities and dreams in a character. In short, an agent needs to be a fan of any author he or she chooses to work with. There are many obstacles to getting a book published, even for an agent, so passion is a vital ingredient to any successful writer/agent relationship.
Curtis and I met, agreed to work together, and maintained a casual relationship over the months it took her to finish her novel. After Curtis delivered the book, things started happening very fast. I decided to submit the book as it was and put together a list of the most appropriate senior editors at the top publishing houses. I wanted this book to be seen by the editors who were enjoying real commercial success with their other authors. I believed Curtis possessed that elusive combination of literary and commercial appeal.
Within a week, all but three editors had turned down the book. They all praised Curtis’s writing, and confessed to enjoying the book, but most just couldn’t see who the audience was, or how they would market it. Many said the main character wasn’t likeable enough, and that perhaps it should be published for a young adult audience, instead of adult.
In the end, we accepted a modest offer from a dynamic editor at Random House. She believed in the book, as we did, but achieving bestseller status was starting to seem like a fantasy. It was a long 18 months later when PREP was published to almost universal critical praise, a flurry of publicity, and strong sales which landed the book on the New York Times Bestseller List.
More to come on this, including the “keys to success” in our next post!