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Thursday, November 11, 2010

An "Orphaned Book" Success Story

The UPS guy delivered a package today containing a book I'd asked a friend at HarperCollins to send. Inside was a double gift: the book I'd asked for, and another "newborn" book that this proud and happy editor wanted to share: The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume by cultural historian Tilar J. Mazzeo. It was a proud and happy moment for me, too: I, too, could call Tilar one of "my" authors. And there'd been an editor before me who could, as well.

I had, in the parlance of the trade, "inherited" Tilar's previous book--The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, about the shrewd, passionately determined, inventive grand-mere of champagne Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin--when the enterprising editor who had acquired the project left the company. I came on the scene at a delicate moment: just as Tilar was poised to deliver her manuscript. Fortunately, we hit it off, and what followed was not so much an editing process as a stimulating conversation between author and editor as stand-in for the reader. I saw the project through that stage and the initial set-up to publication. When I left Harper, my friend came on board as editor No. 3, shepherding the book through production and into publication, where thanks to the efforts of Tilar and many others who had a hand in the process, it hit the New York Times Bestseller List.

Writing conferences and blogs abound in stories of the traumas visited upon authors by the business of publishing, including stories of "orphaned" books that slip between the cracks. I'm not here to say that disappointments don't happen (I'm an author, too). But there are many, many people in publishing who work with care and dedication on behalf of authors and their books. In that spirit, from having been fortunate to have had a ringside seat at a happy ending, I offer this example. Congrats, Tilar. Can't wait to read this!

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter


  1. Nice story, Toni! What was the key to this success? One guess I'd offer is that you were open-minded, curious, and willing to embrace a project and an author that hadn't originated with you. Some editors don't exhibit those qualities. Instead they seem to suffer the editorial equivalent of the "not invented here" syndrome--reflexive, unthinking disdain for ideas that someone else created.

  2. Hey Karl,
    I think openness helped. I've never understood the "not invented here" attitude. It's the editor's JOB to represent the book in-house; to position it; to hold the torch for it; to hold the line for it; to hold the vision for it. No matter who originally acquired it, the house owns it, paid an advance for it, and is going to invest further in producing it. So for the sake of the house as well as the author, it's the editor's job to do right by that book to the extent that he or she can.

  3. One of my biggest successes at Doubleday was something I didn't sign up, a first book by an astrologer named Jeanne Avery. The acquiring editor loved it, but she left to have a baby. I inherited it as a very junior editor and even though many editors more senior than I didn't see its potential, I just happened to get it. The hands-on work Jeanne and I did together and the in-house and out-of-house marketing ideas we came up with resulted in a huge success for her, and one of the achievements I'm proudest of in my years at Doubleday.

    As you say, Toni, certainly not all orphan stories have happy outcomes, but I wonder if the good outcomes are more common than we think? I know of more than a few through first-hand experience.