Sunday, December 22, 2002

December 19, 2002
Room at the Table for Fresh Faces

How's this for an upbeat thought? Despite a year of whining about economic gloominess in book publishing, 2002 might be remembered, if one notes such things, as a particularly good year for first fiction. One would have thought the contrary, that in these times of uncertainties, publishers would be betting only on the sure thing, the brand name writers, and that that would rule out taking many risks with debuts.

Not necessarily true. Several days ago Random House Inc. astonished book professionals with the announcement that its seven book divisions had this year published 103 first novels or first short-story collections. A company record. Random House Inc.? Wasn't that the behemoth many in the business felt would be the most risk averse after its conglomeration in 1998?

There were other bright signs for wannabe fiction writers, and it didn't have much to do with the size of the publishing house. St. Martin's Press, for instance, which churns out 700 titles a year, published 63 debut fiction titles, and Little, Brown & Company, with a 50-title program, did even better proportionately in risk taking. It published eight first novels or debut short-story collections.

In a way this adventurousness may seem surprising in such a mingy economy. But an essential part of publishing lore is that its attraction as a profession for the young and idealistic is precisely this: the joy of discovering and publishing new writers. And this excitement seldom fades over the years of a career.

Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, put it this way: "There's nothing publishers love more than first novels: opening up that box with a manuscript in it and discovering a new novelist."

Peter Olson, chairman and chief executive of Random House Inc., said: "Contrary to the cynics who believe publishing is focused mainly on best sellers and big advances, for our editors author development is a privilege and a truly passionate undertaking. This year they jump-started 103 author careers." (Random House Inc. publishes more than 1,500 fiction titles a year.)

Career building can be a necessarily slow process. Sally Richardson, publisher of St. Martin's Press, said, "We will take on first novels that other publishing houses wouldn't, because we are willing to do smaller numbers than many other houses — have first printings of 3,000 or 4,000, maybe some at 12,000, in hardcover."

"It's no-frills launches," she said. "Part of it is working the smaller bookstores, with a whole spectrum of genres. Mysteries, women's fiction, historical fiction." St. Martin's had 73 best sellers this year, Ms. Richardson said, including "The Nanny Diaries," a first novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Clearly Ms. Richardson's not a bad starter for a writer.

So in a book year with little excitements, when even the sales of some brand name authors are slipping a bit, first fiction provided some energy and juice. One of the few enduring buzz books of 2002 was Alice Sebold's first novel, the best-selling "Lovely Bones" (Little, Brown), which is still buzzing along. Mr. Pietsch, its publisher, said, "It's been a banner year for first novels, and `Lovely Bones' will fuel that for a few years to come."

One thinks back to 1997 when Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" (Atlantic Monthly Press) and Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (Alfred A. Knopf), both first novels, were publishing's propellants. People read them and rushed for their computers to try their hand.

This year, too, there were awards as well as popularity for some first fiction. Julia Glass's novel, "Three Junes" (Pantheon), won the National Book Award for fiction, and "You Are Not a Stranger" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a debut story collection by Adam Haslett, and Brad Watson's "Heaven of Mercury" (W. W. Norton), a first novel, were finalists.

What does this first fiction array prove, other than that perhaps publishers have more nerve than they often lead us to believe? It proves yet again that the best engine to drive a book's sales is not advertising or authors' tours or even reviews, but word of mouth. People will read a book recommended by someone they respect even if they have never heard of the author.

Selling any novel is not easy, but rookie novels are an easier sell than most people would suppose. Publishers and editors are always searching for that new writerly voice. The hunt may be as important as the back list, for in the end the new voice, they hope, becomes a steady voice and eventually that's what makes up the all-valuable back list — those books that bring steady sales to a publisher year after year.

But writing is a torturous game. Get a nicely published first novel in the stores and the writer is on the way, right? Far from true in most cases. The really hard sell is the author's second novel. The voice is no longer new and fresh. Moreover, the prospective publisher has the computer printout revealing the net sales of what was that promising first novel. The numbers don't have to be best selling, but they had better be promising or the author's agent is going to have a tough sale to a publisher still searching for new fresh voices. Unless, of course, that second manuscript is so obviously smashing. Hey, editors and publishers, make 2003 the year of the second novel!

Copyright The New York Times Company

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