If you aren’t someone whose Big Name alone guarantees you a place on the New York Times best-seller list, the odds of making it as a writer are tiny. But a few times a year, the stars align for an out-of-nowhere novel by a little-known author to become a breakout hit — and this fall it’s Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Four months before its release, Station Eleven — a literary postapocalyptic page-turner that combines a deadly pandemic, a Hollywood A-lister’s life story, and a traveling caravan of Shakespearean actors — was the unlikely toast of BookExpo America, an annual trade show bringing together publishers, media, and booksellers around the world. Since then, Station Eleven has garnered every bit of hype a novel can get: critical acclaim, early reader enthusiasm, and prime boosts from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And on Sept. 18, nine days after it was published, it was even long-listed for the National Book Award.
Back in 2006, Mandel found it almost impossible to get the publishing world to pay attention to her first novel, Last Night in Montreal. Her then agent, Emilie Jacobson, started the slow process of sending the manuscript to publishers one at a time — an old-school method — until it finally sold two years later to Unbridled Books, a small, traditional outfit with fewer than a dozen employees. Mandel released two more books with Unbridled, all of which could be described as literary detective noir, and she became a best-kept secret in indie bookstores. ”I think there’s a wider problem with discoverability of books in this country,” says Mandel. ”It seems incredibly difficult for books published with small presses to get any attention at all. With Unbridled, we couldn’t transform positive reviews into sales.”
Still, praise about Mandel eventually reached Knopf editor Jenny Jackson in New York City. She’d heard raves about Mandel’s Unbridled books from a Random House sales rep in the Midwest before a manuscript of Station Eleven landed on her desk in 2013. ”It felt like complete fate,” says Jackson. ”Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person who’d been hearing about Emily.”
In stark contrast to her experience in 2006, Mandel’s new agent, Katherine Fausset, submitted Station Eleven to all the major publishers at once, and after a heated weeklong auction, the rights went to Knopf, the division of Random House that publishes a roster of prestigious and popular authors, including Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami. To Jackson, what made so many publishers reject Last Night in Montreal — that it didn’t fit neatly into one genre — is what gives Station Eleven endless word-of-mouth potential. You can compare it to anything from Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. ”Anybody who loves fiction will find something to love, and that’s what sets it apart and makes it a breakout,” Jackson says. And in fact, when advance copies went out to the media and retailers, the response was immediate. ”The buyers brought Station Eleven to the attention of our Discover Great New Writers program, and we also tagged it as our ‘Sleeper Hit of the Year,”’ says Mary Amicucci, a VP at Barnes & Noble. ”The overriding passion from those who’ve read it is such that you want to put it in the hands of every customer.”
”I feel as if I won the lottery,” says Mandel, who works as an administrative assistant at Rockefeller University. ”My instinct is to hold on to [the day job]. We’ll see if that remains possible in a few months.”