During a week when it seemed as though everyone in the book world was talking about product, Library Journal’s Day of Dialog took some time out to focus on process. Publishing a book is a journey, and the aptly named Book Trip panel that gathered at New York University’s Kimmel Center to tell the story of Bill Clegg’s forthcoming debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press: Gallery Books) gave attendees a good look at the road it traveled.
Clegg began this particular journey at the beginning, with the book’s genesis. When his brother was in heating and plumbing school, he said, he would tell terrible stories of propane explosions. Clegg began imagining: “What if I was the one who left the gas on…. How would you move on from that?” From there, he started with the main character—the survivor of the aforementioned explosion—and used her “regret and guilt and grief” to generate the rest of the book’s many characters.
Moderator Barbara Hoffert praised the way the novel’s ensemble told a single story with “jigsaw-like perfection” and wondered how writing nonfiction—acclaimed memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (2010) and Ninety Days (2012, both Little, Brown)—had informed Clegg’s fiction. The two were actually similar, he answered, and the memory of the writing process itself, having hit walls then gotten through them, was helpful. “It’s just carpentry,” he said. “So much of writing is just having an idea.” He left the story’s architecture open to change as he went, though, leaving himself chances for “the possibility for surprise.”
Panelist Karen Kosztolnyik, executive editor of Scout Press and Gallery Books, recalled having an overwhelmingly emotional response to the manuscript when she first read it. It got under her skin, she said. “I was struck by how wise the book was.” Everyone at Gallery, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, was similarly passionate about the book. Although technically Clegg’s manuscript was to go through an auction process, Gallery made the first offer and essentially pre-empted the process. Because Did You Ever Have a Family was a departure from the commercial work Gallery customarily published, it created a literary fiction imprint, Scout Press, to publish the title and others like it.
As far as the editing process itself, Kosztolnyik said, Clegg made clear and concise choices to begin with, and was great to work with. “A novel is an imperfect thing,” Clegg pointed out, and while they didn’t always agree on every change, the process was handled with care and respect. The two worked through six or so rounds of editing in a series of what Kosztolnyik termed “constructive conversations,” and he was pleased with the finished product. (He did note, however, that there is a typo in the book’s bound galley that drives him nuts, and he’s tempted to visit the warehouse and fix each one by hand.)
SPREADING THE WORD
Kimberly Burns, an independent publicist, took care of publicity. With extensive experience representing literary fiction for Knopf and Random House before hanging out her own shingle, Burns was a good fit for Clegg’s book. And the “collegial atmosphere” of the novel was a good fit for her—talking about it, she said, “immediately felt like you were sitting with your best friend.”
Hoffert noted that the book hit a strong note between literary and commercial—in other words, a good choice for book clubs. And Michelle Leo, vice president and director of education and library marketing for Simon and Schuster, agreed, noting that it has all the right ingredients: small town gossip, mother-daughter relationships, family bonds, and life after tragedy.
The book will definitely include a reading group guide, Leo said. Her focus is on marketing to librarians, and she began promoting it in January as well—at the American Library Association midwinter meeting, the Texas Library Association conference, and on EarlyWord’s galley chat. She also asked anyone posting about the book on social media to send quotes along. “The librarians do a lot of the buzz building for us,” Leo said.
When it comes to getting the word out, Burns added, social media has become as important as its mainstream counterpart. What’s important is getting a book into the hands of influencers, although the results still need to be channeled in order to work effectively as publicity—“Unless you lead the conversation,” she said, “it’s just a bunch of noise.” Ten years ago social media was a separate phenomenon, she added, but no longer. “Now it’s full press.”
Simon & Schuster unveiled Scout Press in January. The imprint is currently in the process of acquiring new titles, though its focus is very much on quality over quantity, said Kosztolnyik. In the meantime, Clegg is making the rounds before his September 8 publication date. While publicizing a debut novelist can be a challenge, Burns said, it’s a plus that Clegg’s memoirs are well known—not to mention the fact that the book generates such strong feelings. “The euphoria at the end of this novel,” she said—“It’s life-reaffirming in the best way. Added Kosztolnyik, “I’ve read this thing 20 times and I still cry.”