Welcome to the Thrillerfest V Blog!

We hope you'll bookmark us, just as you bookmark so many of the hundreds of the International Thriller Writers that participate in our annual conference, held in New York City in July.

ITW is a youthful organization, always ready for a new way of looking at things. You'll find that dynamism here, in blog posts from authors, agents, editors and Thrillerfest attendees, past and present.

And that same excitement you feel from your favorite reads is evident in everything ITW does, and no wonder--the organization, staffing and publicity for ThrillerFest--including this new blog--is undertaken by volunteers, most of whom are ITW authors themselves.

So pull up a chair and stay awhile ... discover the latest news on what Thrillerfest V--the fifth anniversary of the conference--has to offer. Visit old friends, make new ones, ask questions, and hear about the remarkable things in store for the conference.

Whether or not you can come see us in New York--and we hope that you can!--please join us here. It's gonna be ... a thriller!

Kelli Stanley, Thrillerfest Publicity Committee Chair

Thrillerfest Publicity Committee:
Jeannie Holmes
CJ Lyons
Carla Buckley
Grant McKenzie

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Things To Do In Denver When You’re Bestselling

This is going to be a long entry. I could frankly use a good editor.

A bit about myself, since I don’t quite fit with the wonderful authors contributing to this blog — I started as a literary assistant at a very, very large literary agency. I moved my way up to being a foreign rights agent, then bolted to become an assistant editor at Bantam Dell. While I miss the seemingly guaranteed massive commissions of agency work, I have gotten to work with the incomparable thriller-writer John Ramsey Miller, and that compensates for a lot of ramen. Seriously, read The Last Day or any of the Winter Massey books, the man can flat-out write.

As a literary assistant, agents would hand me manuscripts to get a second (or occasionally first) opinion on. A good portion of my career, I knew, was going to be dedicated to assessing manuscripts by that amorphous, personal criteria that agents and editors use. I reconciled myself to two things upfront, and hoped that I’d be able to stick to my guns when it came to following these two simple maxims:

1) Books I love will be rejected.
2) I will pass on a book that will become huge.

It was especially the latter that I could see myself having trouble with. All of the late-round draft picks that went on to become hall-of-famers plague my mind when I read a submission that is good, but that I don’t think has the potential to become great, and definitely not bestselling. The agency I worked for passed on The Time Traveler’s Wife — twice. I thought to myself that I would never let a book that inevitably popular slip through my fingers. I simply wouldn’t, though I tried to steel myself to the idea that it might.

One of the agents handed me a submission one day and asked me to take a look. I read roughly 100 pages and I thought it was a standard, paint-by-numbers thriller. It didn’t grab me. Clicking off my myopic publishing lenses for a moment, as I try to do with every book, I couldn’t see John Q. Public reaching for this on the shelf over the vast array of similar titles. I advised that we should pass and we did. I moved onto the next manuscript submission without a second thought.

I later saw that it had been sold by another agent to a small press. By this point I was working at Bantam Dell and I wrote to the agent, reminding him that we saw it. He shrugged over email (nearly visibly). Easy come, easy go. It was a small sale, anyway. I still maintained that small press / lackluster book equals mediocre sales.

I was wrong. Denver-sized wrong. Mile high wrong. Months later I saw a listing of regional bestsellers and high up on the Denver Post’s bestseller list was this book. It was a success.

I read a book and thought that it had no potential to hit a nerve with the public, and I was wrong. It was a bestseller in a city that has all the same books to choose from that New York does. It was making a lot of money for the publishing house, and when the agent sells the follow up, it’ll make money for that person as well. I had it in my hands and let it slip through. While it wasn’t The Time Traveler’s Wife (yet), it has been the biggest success I have thus far avoided. It’s a not-so-subtle knock to my instincts, that maybe I (and, for that matter, all of publishing) have no real sense as to what the public wants. We anticipate, we plan, we scheme, and we ultimately champion projects that we love (and we fall in love very, very easily) but there’s no set formula for picking books out of the pile and determining their chances at success. There’s no formula even for determining what success even means. I can imagine that’s extremely frustrating for a writer trying to break in or break out.

Coming to Thrillerfest is a great opportunity to see writers I respect and admire and especially enjoy. Lee Child is here, and he is as accommodating as he is talented. Karin Slaughter told me a wonderfully nasty story about hotels once. Allison Brennan is as gracious a human being as I’ve met in my short time in books. I also love meeting the unsigned authors, though. They have an enthusiasm that could light bricks. Still hungry for that first book deal, that first appearance on a bestseller list, the unsigned authors seem to look at the system of how a book gets represented and later sold as being frustrating and Byzantine. It’s broken, isn’t it? Submissions to agents get put in stacks that increase in volume until a stiff breeze or intrepid assistant can tip it over into the rubbish. Submitted manuscripts get put behind editors’ doors (or under plants, or in the air ducts above one’s ceiling) until someone moves offices and it becomes someone else’s problem, right?

I think that I’m a good representation of how the system actually, in its Rube Goldberg-contraption sort of way, works. I passed on a book, but that doesn’t mean the author stopped trying. The author kept submitting and the book eventually got found — first by an agent that believed in it, then a publishing house that could focus its energies, then by the reading public. While frustrating for all involved, that’s a good system. It makes bestsellers in Denver.

And Audrey Niffinegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife got bought for a reported $4.5M.

Randall Klein
Assistant Editor
Bantam Dell


  1. Randall, Hi! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your expertise with us!

    I'd love to hear any specifics on why The Time Traverler's Wife was passed up by agents--to me it was an instant grab of a read, strong voice, strong premise, something new and different....so why would that make it a hard sell for an agent? I'm assuming that an agent would snap up any work they think is an easy sell.

    What lessons can we learn and use to make our own novels and proposals more compelling?


  2. Hi Randall, nice blog! I always enjoy a POV from the other side.

    I think your story simply proves that there are books for everybody out there. No two people like all the same books. Thank goodness or the same authors would always be in the top ten. (more than they are now.)

    And this blog is a good reminder to the hordes of the unpubbed (me) to never give up.

  3. Randall, thanks for this really cool and thoughtful post! Brings home the reality of how much subjectivity is intrinsic to what we all do--writing, representing, editing or publishing.

    And I've always loved Rube Goldberg ... ;)


  4. When I got an ARC of THE DAVINCI CODE, I read the back cover, thought to myself, "Who the hell would read that?," and tossed it aside. It happens to everyone.

    But I think for agents and editors who pass on manuscripts... That book would probably NOT have been a success if you'd taken it on. Because for whatever reason, you didn't see the potential. It wasn't the right book for you. So it all worked out in the end.

    There are always a million other books waiting.

  5. Hi Randall . . . thanks for the sweet comment! My agent has earned her money . . . I make sure she goes around telling everyone that I'm really a nice person, much nicer than my books suggest . . .

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  7. Didn't Wiliam Styron always tell the story--not to me of course, but I heard about it, okay?--that when he was an editor, he passed on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki? And he and Thor both turned out fine. No one (except perhaps for Mr. Heyerdahl, and then only at the time) thought any less of Mr. Styron in the long term.

    And you know better than I--but didn't a whole bunch of publishers pass on Harry Potter? Not that it makes it any better. It just makes it--the way it works.

    I'm a reporter. People call with story ideas--hundreds of them a week--and I have to decide which ones to research and produce. I have made "mistakes." And have seen my rejects develop into perfectly wonderful stories on the other stations. Why do those stories seem better than the ones I chose for myself? And I know the other guys are hitting palm to forehead because they rejected the ones I was successful with.

    I think you have to see it as half full. It IS half full. Hope our paths cross in person soon