Beginning to End follows a book from acquisition to bookshelf. For this "season," we're honing in on Light from Other Stars, about a young astronaut hopeful and an invention that alters time. The novel is author Erika Swyler's second, following her much-lauded 2015 debut, The Book of Speculation. In our first article, we spoke with Swyler's agent Michelle Brower. Next up: Lea Beresford, senior editor at Bloomsbury Publishing, working with Swyler to ready the book for publication next year.
Acquire. Edit. Blurb-gather.
In addition to being the most awkward verb on an editor's resume, collecting quotes for book jackets might be the least understood of her primary tasks. Bloomsbury Senior Editor Lea Beresford described the process to Spine. "Editors send out advanced review copies (ARCs) or bound galleys of books to well-known writers in hopes that they will provide a quote. We'll ask writers we know, writers that the author of that particular book knows, and writers we don't know. The most helpful blurbs are from established writers of books that appeal to a similar audience."
When Beresford needed blurbs for Adelia Saunders's intricate and inventive debut novel Indelible (June 2017), she thought of Erika Swyler. She liked Swyler's first novel, The Book of Speculation, and considered herself a fan of the writer's "wonderful, transporting writing, her fantastically creative storytelling, and her sense of community with other writers."
Swyler provided a quote for Saunders' book, and again Beresford reached out when gathering quotes for Adrienne Celt's Invitation to a Bonfire (June 2018). By the time Swyler's agent Michelle Brower contacted Beresford about Swyler's second novel, Little Twitch, the two had formed a relationship, of sorts. Beresford was keen to see the manuscript.
"I loved the book pretty much from the first page," Beresford told Spine. "I love fiction that has an element of genre." Most of what Beresford acquires is classified as literary fiction, with a subset of those books including "a tinge of sci-fi or fantasy or some magical realism." Swyler's literary novel included a machine that alters the fabric of time and an interplanetary mission.
That "tinge of sci-fi" was one of several qualities that got Beresford excited about Little Twitch. "It is, first and foremost, a novel about the evolving relationships between parents and children, about female ambition, about sacrifice, and about families, both biological and found." Beresford wanted the book, so much so that Bloomsbury pre-empted. (In publishing terms, "preempt" means making an offer so compelling, the author and her agent sell without going through a full bidding process.)
Beresford was out of town at the time, and she huddled in the corner during a family event while she and Brower hammered out the details over the phone. "It was a whirlwind weekend negotiation!" she said.
Once acquired, the book moved through first-round edits. Many of her questions during this round focused on the book's science. "How does that work? Are the cucumbers round because of the lack of gravity? What does JPL stand for?" (Jet Propulsion Lab.) "If she explained something to do with chemistry, engineering, or space in a way that I understood it, I knew the average reader would too."
After round two, focused on the sentence-level nitty-gritty, Beresford turned Swyler's head towards the title, Little Twitch, which she and her sales force wanted to change. "Erika's debut, The Book of Speculation, had the perfect title. It referenced books in general (catnip for book lovers!) as well as the book within the book, and acted as both a title and a description. It was, as our sales force commented, very 'pickupable.'
"Little Twitch, while quirkily intriguing, didn't say anything about the content. Erika and I must have come up with hundreds of alternatives. At the end there, every title I came up with sounded like a parody of a book title. Finally we came up with Light from Other Stars, which references so many things in the book. It's evocative and lends itself to a beautiful cover, and I fervently hope that it will prove just as 'pickupable' as The Book of Speculation."
Light from Other Stars has moved on to cover design (article on cover designer Patti Ratchford coming soon) and publicity (article on Lauren Hill coming soon), and launches in May. Beresford plans to keep in touch with Swyler long after her publication date.
"Erika has been a delight to work with, incredibly lovely and open and gracious always, and I look forward to a long relationship with her, whether or not I have the honor and pleasure of working on her next book. I hope I will, of course!"
Find Lea Beresford on Twitter @LeaBeresford.
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.