Book Article

Fabulous Nobodies

The selling of first novels -- The business behind how books from new authors are bought and sold -- sometimes for a big price

It was a quiet autumn in her New England hamlet, and Marti Leimbach, 26, usually slept until her dog roused her. She wrote then, until noon, when she went out to run on the beach or stayed in to read until the shadows got long. She rarely had to be somewhere at one steely time. Hers was a writer's life.

But in New York, machinery was grinding away, threatening Leimbach's tranquillity by trying to secure her success. Her first novel, Dying Young, was about to be published, and that would change everything. Doubleday was scheduling a book tour — New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles. Photographers were developing her picture, her blond hair thrown over her shoulder, her blue eyes direct. Reporters were asking for details.

''Marti is news — not just a new voice in fiction,'' says Doubleday's publicist. Indeed, her story — not the story she tells in her novel — may be what makes readers buy her book.

Her story began just over a year ago when Leimbach was still a graduate student in the University of California at Irvine's writing program. Her professor, novelist MacDonald Harris (who also had discovered Michael Chabon and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), seized on Leimbach and her manuscript about a sensitive and sensual young woman torn, in Nietzschean angst, between her dying lover and a robust entrepreneur. Here, Harris thought, was a writer with an ''extraordinary grasp of human nature and of the relationship between sex and death.'' He sent the manuscript to his agent, Virginia Barber, in New York.

Barber accepted it at once. Two months later, she had sold it to publishers in a dozen countries, so that by the time it was auctioned in New York, everyone wanted this sexy literary novel by a Harvard graduate. Doubleday got it — for $150,000. And once Hollywood had paid for its piece of the glory, Leimbach had pocketed half a million dollars.

Marti Leimbach is news, but she's not the first one to make it this way. It's a trend at least as old as the celebrity of Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and David Leavitt (Family Dancing), whose first books were published in 1984. Publishers look for literary stars, writers who don't always want to retreat to autumnal woods before fashioning their next graceful phrase, writers who can get out there and hustle, writers who can sell and be sold. They look for celebrities the way directors look for actresses as magnets for their movies. They want more Michael Chabons, more John Burnham Schwartzes (Bicycle Days), more Susan Minots (Monkeys). So it's unheard of now for hefty advances and expectations to be visited upon first-time novelists. And once that happens, once the writer's obscurity is juxtaposed with an eye-opening advance (especially if the writer is young), you have the crucial ingredient of successful promotion — the utter surprise of it all, the marketable mystery. The question most asked last month when Harper & Row signed up 19-year-old Franchesca Forrer was ''Who is this University of Nevada freshman, and why is her book of stories worth almost six figures?''

When a publisher pays such weighty sums for a newcomer, it is hoping that of all the starlets in Schwab's, this might be Lana Turner, the unknown who will dazzle. Sometimes it is: Sue Miller's heatedly fought-for The Good Mother was extravagantly successful for Harper & Row. Sometimes it isn't: George Bernau's Promises to Keep, which won him a six-figure advance, didn't even make the national best-seller lists.

The book business published 161 first novels in 1989. Only two were startllngly profitable: Allan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, both of which took root on best-seller lists. Nevertheless, Doubleday, for one, says it will continue to invest in the future. Last year, it published 18 literary novels by first-or second-time authors. In 1986, it published two.

And because these fledgling writers arrive in a veil of mist, there must be publicity. A William Morrow publicist stresses the importance of photographs. A picture of mooel-turned-novelist Jonathan Ames caught the eye of critics when it showed up on copies of his I Pass Like Night. This season, Morrow is throwing itself and a six-figure advance behind The Horse Latitudes, a first novel it describes as ''super-commercial, a first-rate thriller set in L.A.'' Author Robert Ferrigno's photograph is everywhere.

But what of the other first novelists, the ones with no machinery behind them, who must pray that their books will speak for them? These writers outnumber the Marti Leimbachs. As one publicist puts it, ''They're going out there with just the words.''

One of them is Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, 27, of Georgia. As Doubleday rolls out the red carpet for Leimbach, it is publishing Vaughn's first work. Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and Here Are the Highlights is a devilishly devastating book about one woman's struggle to reconcile fundamentalism with genuine Christian principles, to reconcile dreams (even mean little ones) with reality (even meaner and looming large). Doubleday intends to ''keep her in the South,'' a publicist says, adding that the publishing house is sure her reputation will grow the old-fashioned way — with the body of her work, just as Hemingway's did and Faulkner's.

Of course, there are still books that whisper themselves into the American consciousness without anyone casting an eye to the author's age or beauty. Sometimes the authors simply win awards or win over a reviewer. But for her exposure, Marti Leimbach must play what she calls a ''tough game, a privileged game.'' The publicity mill courted it; Leimbach gets it for better or worse. ''The hype is setting Marti up for tougher critical attention,'' a publicist said just before Dying Young was published. ''The critical community is tapping its collective foot and saying, 'Who is this 26-year-old whippersnapper to get all this money?' '' And the reviews have been decidedly mixed: Publishers Weekly called Dying Young a ''disappointment,'' but Time dubbed Leimbach ''a deft writer.''

Whatever happens, Leimbbch's not complaining. The spotlight came with the money, and the money has changed her life. As she points out, ''There are articles written every day. Newspapers come every day, magazines every week. And if there's an article in there on me, that's great. Next week it'll be on someone else and that's fine.''

Originally posted Mar 02, 1990 Published in issue #3 Mar 02, 1990 Order article reprints
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