While the average advance for a debut novelist is reported to be less than £6,600, publishers continue to dig deep for a small minority of books they believe will fly onto the bestseller lists. We take a look at debuts which have scooped six-figure deals in 2017 and 2016, including Bath Novel Award runner up Laura Marshall and longlistee Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott:
The International Thriller: Liar’s Candle by August Thomas
Deal: six figure deal for world English language rights ahead of London Book Fair to Simon & Schuster in the UK and Canada and Scribner in the US
Agent: Piers Blofeld at Sheil Land Associates
Premise: Present-day Turkey in the aftermath of a bomb attack on the US Embassy. What if a young embassy intern were pursued by a diverse group of powerful players determined to kill her?
Author: August Thomas is a former Fulbright Scholar to Turkey, and holds Master’s degrees from Boğaziçi (Istanbul’s top public university) and the University of Edinburgh.
Publisher’s rationale: “Combine a scarily precocious author, a backdrop that is increasingly in the news and authentically rendered, and an intriguing “what if?”—what if a young embassy intern were pursued by a diverse group of powerful players determined to kill her?—and you have somethings special. Simon and Schuster’s three imprints can’t wait to launch August Thomas on what figures to be an extraordinary career journey.”
The Murder Mystery: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sara J Harris
Deal: “whirlwind” six-figure pre-empt by Harper Collins ahead of London Book Fair
Agent: Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates
Premise: Jasper, a young boy with both synaesthesia and face-blindness, has seen a new colour, one that he’s never seen before: the colour of murder. As he struggles to get to the bottom of the mystery, including his own role in his neighbour Bee’s murder, someone out there is determined to stop him.
Author: Sara J Harris is a freelance education journalist and lives in West London with her husband and two young children. This is her debut adult novel. She is also the author of Scholastic’s YA Jessica Cole: Model Spy series written under her pen name, Sarah Sky.
Publisher’s rationale: “I loved the pitch from the moment I heard it, and I loved Sarah’s beautiful writing from the first page, as she whisked me into Jasper’s colourful yet claustrophobic world. Funny, heartfelt with a cracking mystery at its heart, Jasper is a fantastically intriguing and unreliable narrator. This is going to be a huge book for HarperFiction in spring 2018 and I can’t wait to publish this with the fanfare that it deserves.”
The Family Drama Debut: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Agent: Olivia Guest at Jonathan Clowes
Premise: observational family drama about a family forced to spend seven days in quarantine at Christmas together, due to one of the sisters coming into contact with a life-threatening virus.
Author: Francesca Hornak is a journalist and writer, whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Red, Grazia and Stylist. Her column History Of The World In 100 Modern Objects first appeared in The Sunday Times Style Magazine in 2013 and ran for two years
Publisher’s rationale: “Both sharply witty and heartfelt, this one of those rare novels that should appeal to men and women of any generation, anywhere in the world. It’s like a David Nicholls novel and your favourite Richard Curtis movie rolled into one.”
The Epic Fantasy Debut: Daevabad by S.A. Chakraborty
Deal: six figure pre-empt by Voyage UK/US within four days of submission
Agent: Jennifer Azantian of The Jennifer Azantian Literary Agency
Premise: C18th young Egyptian con artist’s nascent healing abilities attract the attention of a hot-tempered djinn warrior who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime.
Author: A resident of Queens, N.Y., Chakraborty has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines; she’s also an organizer of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers’ group. Chakraborty pitched her novel through literary Twitter event #DVpit, created by the Bent Agency’s Beth Phelan to highlight work by marginalized voices.
Publisher’s Rationale: I was beguiled by the way Chakraborty drew upon the history of the Mughal Empire, the Sunni-Shia conflict, Persian and Indian folklore, and Islamic tradition to create this wonderfully rich world; it feels relevant to current events, and yet it’s action-packed, delicious escapist storytelling at its best.
The Book Group Debut: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin
Agent: Lorella Belli at the Lorella Belli Agency
Premise: Seven year-old Zach hides in a primary school cloakroom while a gunman rampages outside. Room meets We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Author: Rhiannon Navin is a German native who now lives outside New York City and the mother of three school-age children.
Publisher’s Rationale: “I was absolutely blown away by the writing: the character of Zach, who narrates; the pace; the plot; the sheer emotional impact of Zach’s story. I honestly can’t remember having quite such an immediate and visceral response to a book since Room.”
The YA Fantasy Trilogy Debut: Ash Princess By Laura Sebastian
Agent: Laura Biagi at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
Premise: At the age of six a princess sees her country invaded and her mother, the queen, murdered. A decade later the princess, who’s been held as a kind of prisoner in her own court, joins with rebels to seduce, then kill, the prince.
Author: Laura Sebastian grew up in South Florida and volunteers at New York City’s Housing Works Bookstore.
Publisher’s Rationale: “Perfect for fans” of An Ember in the Ashes and Red Queen, as well as those “who root for Sansa’s grit on Game of Thrones.”
The Crime Debut: Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Deal: Six figure pre-empt from Orion within 48 hours of receiving the manuscript
Agent: Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh
Premise: Recently re-instated detective conducts murder investigation into six victims, dismembered and stitched together like a puppet – a corpse that will become known in the press as the ‘ragdoll’.
Author: 33 year-old former paramedic Cole had just started a job in the control-room of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in his hometown of Bournemouth when his book was accepted.
Publisher’s rationale: “Pulse-racing, read-through-your-fingers, can’t look away stuff. I haven’t felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like this on picking up a crime debut for years and years. I know we can launch him with a bang straight onto the bestseller lists.”
The YA Debut: The Hate You Give by Angela Thomas
Deal: Six-figure advance from Balzer & Bray following a thirteen-way auction (February 2016)
Agent: Brooks Sherman at the Bent Literary Agency
Premise: 16-year-old girl from poverty-stricken slum witnesses a police officer shooting her best friend, Khalil, who turns out to have been unarmed during the confrontation – but may or may not have been a drug dealer.
Author: Thomas , a student in Belhaven University’s creative writing program at the time she conceptualized The Hate U Give, originally in short story form. The title comes from a tattoo sported by the late hip-hop musician Tupac Shakur, the acronym T.H.U.G. Thomas was inspired to write the story five years ago, after a friend of hers refused to drive across a bridge to her home neighbourhood.
Publisher rationale: “It’s the perfect storm of a topical, well-written book with an important message and authentic in a way that I rarely see in YA literature. There’s a very real hunger for these kinds of stories.”
The Psychological Suspense Debut: Friend Request by Laura Marshall
Deal: Six-figure pre-empt from Sphere (Little, Brown) April 2016
Agent: Felicity Blunt at Curtis Brown
Premise: A forty-year-old woman receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she bullied at school; a girl who died 25 years ago.
Author: Kent-based freelance conference producer Laura Marshall is a recent graduate of Curtis Brown Creative three month writing course. Friend Request was the runner up for The Bath Novel Award 2016 and was also shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2016.
Publisher rationale: “Friend Request is one of the most outstanding, compelling and emotionally resonant psychological thrillers I’ve read.”
The Historical Debut: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Agent: Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown
Premise: In 18th-century London, a courtesan and a widowed merchant come together in extraordinary circumstances, prompted by the arrival of a mermaid to the city.
Author: Hermes Gowar studied archaeology, anthropology and art history before going on to work in museums. She began to write small pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with and around, and in 2013 won a scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. An early draft was a finalist in the Mslexia First Novel Competition 2015, and it was also one of three entries shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.
Publisher’s rationale: “A marvellous, moving, bawdy and clever book. Imogen has such a flair for the telling detail and for elegantly leading her readers through tears to laughter and back.”
The Picture Book Debut: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
Agent: Stephen Malk of Writers’ House
Premise: Animal-eye perspective of a cat who, in various guises, seems to be friendly or fierce, depending on the perspective of viewer.
Author / Illustrator: Brendan Wenzel is a New York-based illustrator with a great interest in all things furred, feathered and scaled. He is an ardent conservationist and a proud collaborator with many organizations working to ensure the future of wild places and threatened species, especially within Southeast Asia. His work has been shown internationally and regularly appears in McSweeney’s.
Publisher’s rationale: “As soon as I saw the proposal, I felt I was looking at an instant classic. It’s the kind of book that elicits an immediate response: ‘F*cking brilliant.’ And I knew that we had to be the ones to publish this.”
The Psychological Thriller Debut: The Day After Yesterday by Felicia Yap
Deal: Six-figure advance won by Headline after three-way publisher auction (April 2016)
Agent: Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown
Premise: Before I Go To Sleep meets Minority Report. In a world where memory becomes full / stops working at the age of 18, a murder investigation into a dead woman points towards another woman’s husband.
Author: Felicia Yap grew up in Kuala Lumpur and has a doctorate in history from Cambridge University. She has been a radioactive-cell biologist, a war historian, a Cambridge lecturer, a technology journalist, a theatre critic, a flea-market trader and a catwalk model. She lives in London and is a recent graduate of the Faber Academy’s novel-writing program. The Day After Yesterday was recently short-listed for the Fresher Writing Prize for the first 500 words of a novel.
Publisher’s rationale: “The Day After Yesterday is an extraordinary début novel, with a remarkable and inventive concept – woven into an intense and compelling psychological drama. Felicia is a real talent, her writing is thought-provoking, original and extremely addictive.”
The “Clit Noir” Trilogy Debut: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Chloe J Esposito
The Deal: Seven-figure London Book Fair pre-empt by Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House (April 2016)
The Agent: Simon Trewin at WME
The Premise: The story of the lengths an identical twin will go to, to steal her sister’s perfect, glamorous life – including a stunning Sicilian villa, sexy husband and beautiful baby boy – and keep on living it. Pitched as “a heady mix of sex, lies, twists and murder”, Alvina Knightly’s sibling rivalry escalates into the ultimate crime in what is “an explosive and deliciously addictive high-octane read”
The Author: Esposito is a former English teacher-turned-management consultant who grew up in Cheltenham and read English at Oxford. Faber Academy graduate Esposito attracted unprecedented interest from 21 agencies before signing with Trewin.
Publisher’s Rationale: “Mad whipped around the Penguin office like an electric current. In Alvie Knightly, her witty, badass and refreshingly uninhibited anti-heroine, Chloé has conjured an utterly iconic new voice. Her novel has fuelled the kind of excited chatter and debate that only accompanies the very best in brand new entertainment. This novel is like nothing else out there.”
The Literary Historical Debut: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
Deal: Six figure pre-empt by Hutchinson Books, Penguin Random House (October 2016)
Agent: Karolina Sutton of Curtis Brown
Premise: Truman Capote, having reached the pinnacle of literary success after In Cold Blood’s wild acclaim, decides to drop a “literary grenade” in 1975 that will transform him from society’s darling to persona non grata by betraying the confidences of his inner circle, mid-20th century society’s wealthy and powerful elite – the women he called his ‘Swans’ and collective narrators of Swan Song.
Author: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott was born and raised in Houston, Texas, before coming to call first Los Angeles, then London her adopted homes. She holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California. Swan Song is her first novel, developed over the six-month UEA-Guardian Masterclass, led by novelist James Scudamore. Swan Song was named the Winner of the 2015 Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel, as well as being shortlisted for the 2015/16 Historical Novel Society New Novel Award, the Lucy Cavendish Award and was also longlisted for The Bath Novel Award in 2016
Publisher’s rationale: “Compulsively readable, Swan Song is a tale of betrayal, society, romance and rupture, moving between the cocktail-soaked Manhattan parties and Capote’s childhood in Depression-era Alabama, capturing a great writer’s meteoric rise and self-destructive fall. I was spellbound from the first chapter and knew this was a novel I had to publish.”