Six-figure debut deals

While the average advance for a debut novel 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 a range of Bath Novel Awards winning and listed debuts which have scooped six-figure deals, including novels by Saara El-Arifi, Susan Stokes-Chapman, Struan Murray, Laura Marshall and Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott.

The African-inspired Epic Fantasy Debut: The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Deal: Six-figure auction in the UK by HarperVoyager, and six-figure pre-empt in the US by Del Rey US

Agent: Juliet Mushens at Mushens Entertainment and Ginger Clark at Curtis Brown US

Premise: Set in “a cruelly divided Empire” and featuring “a spiky heroine with a heart of gold”, The Final Strife is described as reading like “N K Jemisin meets Patrick Rothfuss” and is the first in a planned trilogy.

The synopisis reads: “Stolen from her noble crib as a child, Sylah was one of ‘the Sandstorm’: 12 Ember children raised by rebels to one day bring down the empire—until a massacre left her the lone survivor. Years later she spends her days numb from addiction, fighting (and winning) in the ring to fund her habit. But when her long-lost stepbrother returns, determined to fulfil the purpose they were trained for, Sylah is caught between her blood, and her loyalties. Forced to confront everything she has run from, and the truth of her past, can Sylah achieve the destiny she was trained for?”

Author: El-Arifi’s heritage-raised by a Christian Ghanaian/British mother and a Muslim Sudanese/Arab father-is said to be “intrinsically linked to the themes of her stories”. She spent her childhood in the Middle East and, on reaching her formative years, moved to a village outside Sheffield. She initially specialised in theatre directing but now works at Pinewood Film Studios as global senior manager for comms and social media. The Final Strife was longlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2020.

Publisher Rationale: “Saara is a remarkable, fresh and brilliant new talent. She has created characters to love and invest in – the perfect start to what I believe will be a fantastic series. I absolutely loved The Final Strife and think readers will too.”

The Historical Romance Debut: Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman

Deal: Six-figure two-book pre-empt by Harvill Secker, ahead of an eight-way auction in January 2021

Agent: Juliet Mushens at Mushens Entertainment

Premise: a novel “of secrets and deception, love and fulfilment, fate and hope”. The synopsis states: “In London 1799, Dora Blake is an aspiring jewellery artist who lives with her uncle in what used to be her parents’ famed shop of antiquities. When a mysterious Greek vase is delivered, Dora is intrigued by her uncle’s suspicious behaviour and enlists the help of Edward Lawrence, a young man seeking acceptance into the Society of Antiquaries. Edward sees the ancient vase as key to unlocking his academic future. Dora sees it as her chance to restore her parents’ shop to its former glory, and to escape her uncle. But what Edward discovers about the vase has Dora questioning everything she has ever known, about her life, her family and the world as she knows it. As Dora uncovers the truth she starts to realise that some mysteries are buried, and some boxes are locked, for a reason.”

Author: Hailing from the Georgian city of Lichfield, Stokes-Chapman is a graduate of Aberystwyth University’s MA in Creative Writing. Pandora was shortlisted for the 2020 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and longlisted for the 2020 Bath Novel Award.

Publisher Rationale: “Pandora is a bountiful gift of a novel: Susan has given us gorgeous writing, wonderful characters, an atmospheric setting and a thrilling mystery at its heart. Unlike her namesake, Dora will unleash a great deal of pleasure and joy into the world. Georgian London, ancient Greek antiquities, forgeries, glamorous parties and murder at the docks (plus a charismatic magpie)—what more could you want!’

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 Children’s Fantasy Debut: Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray

Deal: six-figure pre-empt by Penguin Random House (July 2018)

Agent: Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown

Premise: 13-year-old Ellie lives in the heart of a half-submerged city, in a ramshackle workshop overflowing with curiosities. The world in which she lives is haunted by an ancient evil called The Enemy that, once every generation, takes possession of a human body as its Vessel.

Author: Originally from Edinburgh, STRUAN MURRAY is a lecturer and researcher in genetics at the University of Oxford and won the The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017.

Publisher’s Rationale: “I opened the manuscript at 10.30 at night and by the time I turned the last page at a quarter to three, I knew I had to publish it. Ellie is such an engaging main character – independent, big-hearted and resourceful – and the world she inhabits so vividly drawn, I lost myself to the story entirely. The writing stacks up against the very best in the market and treads the line between classic and commercial perfectly. I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Struan to Puffin.”

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 and the Lucy Cavendish Award and also longlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2016