Lee Miller, subject of 'The Age of Light'
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David Canfield
September 26, 2017 AT 12:25 PM EDT

Last week, a Paris-set historical romance from a debut novelist was the subject of a riveting bidding war between publishing houses.

The book is The Age of Light, and it centers on a pioneering photographer named Lee Miller and her tumultuous relationship with Man Ray. Written by Whitney Scharer, it sold to Judy Clain of Little, Brown and Company for north of $1 million, two sources familiar with the auction situation told EW.

Scharer announced the news on her blog, writing, “I’m still adjusting to the idea that I’m going to be a published novelist.”

A University of Washington MFA graduate, Scharer is not the first unknown author to create such a frenzy. Recent debuts such as The Girls by Emma Kline and City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg have received $2 million offers. Such auction buzz is often followed by elaborate marketing campaigns and discussions around adaptation rights.

But even given the industry’s continual, aggressive search for breakout writers and voices, The Age of Light’s journey to high-profile release was a remarkably fast one. Julie Barer, Scharer’s agent, told EW that she sent the book to publishers on Wednesday morning, and before even completing the day’s submission calls, she was already fielding expressions of interest. She ended up receiving a startling 13 bids on the book.

Barer explained The Age of Light’s unique cross appeal. “I think what makes Whitney’s novel so special is that it’s very accessible, so it has the commercial potential to reach a broad audience, but it is also gorgeously written with great psychological sophistication,” she said. “One editor described it as the kind of book that is both ‘what women want to read and what they need to read.’”

Celeste Ng, whose second novel Little Fires Everywhere has emerged as one of the fall’s most acclaimed and buzzy releases, stoked excitement for The Age of Light upon its sale, tweeting, “Make a note of this, folks. This book is going to amaze you.”

Barer described The Age of Light as “a very feminist novel,” and it’s a prescient frame through which to consider pop culture right now.

Clain, who acquired the book for Little, Brown, echoed the sentiment in a statement to EW: “Once in a rare while, a debut novel comes along that feels essential to publish … the elements here are all irresistible: Paris, a great love story, a woman who is not defined by a man, a story of reinvention, and a page-turner to boot.”

The acquisition comes at a time when even the most hyped new novelists are struggling to break out. The aforementioned debuts of Cline and Hallberg underperformed, and more generally, best-seller lists are currently being dominated by older, familiar names — at a higher rate than usual.

The industry is well aware of this trend, of course, but it’s only accelerating the search for new voices that can make an impact. Barer sees the problem as a cultural one, a broader consequence of the volatile political climate. “Everyone has spent the last nine months extremely preoccupied with politics — it’s a show that you can’t tear yourself away from, because something urgent and outrageous happens almost every day,” Barer explained. “It’s hard to get attention for unknown writers in a climate like that, so you’re seeing a lot of readers fall back on what’s familiar and reliable, because times are so uncertain.”

The Age of Light will be published by Little, Brown and Company in early 2019.

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