Publishers in search of the next blockbuster are betting big — really, really big — on a handful of literary debuts

By Isabella Biedenharn
May 02, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

After reading just two pages of Emma Cline’s luminous novel The Girls — about the young women flocking around a Manson-like cult figure — Random House editor Kate Medina shut her door. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything else. I’m not talking to anybody. I’m just reading this book,'” she recalls. And when she finished, Medina offered Cline a three-book, reported $2 million deal. (The book hits stores in June.)

Cline isn’t the only debut author who reportedly scored a whopper of an advance. Others include Stephanie Danler, whose coming-of-age novel Sweetbitter goes on sale in May; Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, whose just-published dysfunctional-family romp The Nest is at No. 2 on the New York Times list; and Imbolo Mbue, whose novel Behold the Dreamers — the story of an immigrant couple working for a Lehman Brothers exec in 2008 — is due in August.

The biggest reason publishers are willing to pony up so much money for first-timers is the most obvious one—and why Medina couldn’t leave her chair that day: gorgeous writing. “I’ve been reading manuscripts for 15 years, and nothing slapped me in the face like this,” says Claudia Herr, Danler’s editor at Knopf, of Sweetbitter. “The energy and preciseness of her prose…it just completely blew me away.” Danler’s huge two-book deal, Herr reveals, was about taking the novel off the table — so that other houses couldn’t bid on it — and, more important, “telling her that we were serious about her, that we didn’t just want her sexy foodie novel.”

Still, you can’t count on selling a book on the writer’s talent alone—so while factors like being photogenic or savvy with social media won’t make or break a deal, they can definitely sweeten it. “I actually knew very little about [Sweeney] when I bought The Nest,” says her editor at Ecco, Megan Lynch. “I didn’t know that, for example, she knew Amy Poehler well enough to approach her for a blurb. That was a happy bonus.” Lynch stresses that while she would never “decline a book I loved because I felt like the author wouldn’t be able to handle an NPR interview, it would certainly affect how determined I might be: Am I going to hang in for another round at auction, or drop out?” Herr, for her part, acknowledges that an author’s appearance can affect an advance — “We look at all of that stuff” — but insists, “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at. That’s my firm belief.”

Given the amount of books a publisher needs to sell in order to make a profit, it’s possible that none of these novels will actually make money. But Random House publisher Susan Kamil believes that the honor of having a sparkling literary talent on your list can offset any financial loss. “We want to have the best writers in the world at Random House,” Kamil says. “Sometimes those writers come at a premium—and we have paid it.”