Birth of a Series

Betsy Mitchell, Editor, joined Random House Publishing Group in 2002 as editor in chief of Del Rey.

As an editor who’s worked in science fiction and fantasy book publishing for more than 20 years, I’ve received many manuscripts from first-time novelists. My rule of thumb is to approach such projects as you would a porcupine: gingerly, very gingerly.

The specimen before me one particular morning was Between Wind and Water by an author named Naomi Novik. The title gave no clue as to the story’s content, but the manuscript did arrive from the office of an agent I respect.

Yet another novel about dragons? The needle on my editor’s Skept-o-meter began to flail. My imprint, Del Rey, is the longtime publisher of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, which first hit bestseller lists more than 20 years ago. Since then, dragon-storytellers such as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Patricia Wrede, and Christopher Paolini have been enormously popular. What could’ve possessed Ms. Nobody-I’d-Ever-Heard-Of to try to break into publishing with such a well-worn concept?

Despite my reservations, Novik’s manuscript immediately immersed me in time and place. It opened with the capture of a French ship carrying in its hold an extremely valuable dragon’s egg. In this version of 19th-century Europe, dragons were used as air power in the Napoleonic Wars. That charming conceit, as well as Novik’s skillful employment of archaic speech patterns, the research she’d done on the British navy and class structure of the period, as well as her colorful, action-filled writing, held my attention for several pleasant hours. The manuscript had won me over.

These days, however, it’s not enough to impress just an editor. It’s important for an editor to launch an author on a long-term path of success by recruiting other fans in-house. So I made a batch of manuscript copies and passed them around to people in other departments of the Random House Publishing Group, asking for their opinion.

My survey came back with uniformly positive responses. “When’s the next book going to be ready?” was the comment I heard most. Good enough for me—time to go back to the agent. I wanted to make an offer on three books: Between Wind and Water and two continuing adventures of Captain William Laurence and the dragon, Temeraire.

There was one other department I needed to hear from before making my offer. Although the sales department doesn’t have the right of refusal over any manuscript a Random House editor wants to buy, its endorsement of a project early on can be extremely valuable.

The vice president of sales told me that our romance department had just published a mass-market series in an interesting new way. In three successive months, author Mariah Stewart’s three related stories had been published under the Ballantine imprint logo. Sales had been good; readers were obviously happy to have three stories at once by an author they enjoyed.

A terrific concept, I thought. Three books on sale back to back would give Novik immediate visibility on the bookshelves, and I was pretty sure that a reader who found any of the three would want to read more about Laurence and Temeraire—right away.

Was Novik capable of writing that quickly? Many authors are of the book-a-year variety, and a smaller percentage of them take even longer. But if she could turn out two more manuscripts in short order, we could hold off publication of the first novel until books two and three were finished. I put the question to her agent—and the answer was yes. The suggestion of our VP of sales had borne fruit.

I had one more piece of ammo in favor of buying Novik’s three books, and that had to do with a comment I’d heard from the fellows in charge of ordering science fiction and fantasy for the three big chains—Borders, Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks.

Because of the number of stores under their control, these buyers are perhaps the most powerful people in science fiction and fantasy publishing. A buyer’s job is to decide how many copies of any particular title to order for his stores. A wise editor will get to know these exalted beings by hook or by crook and maintain friendly relations with them.

Via conversations with the buyers, I’d learned that they were eager to find and promote new authors who were writing original mass-market series books. Series titles are distinct from trilogies in that each book contains a stand-alone story with a solid, satisfying ending. A reader can jump into a series at any point, although beginning with the first book usually offers added pleasures in that larger story arcs develop over the length of the series. The fact that the chain buyers were looking for just such a series as Novik’s enabled me to get approval on a nice three-book offer.

The first manuscript, however, needed a new title. Between Wind and Water, while meaningful once a reader knew what the story was about, didn’t exactly beckon browsers to pick up the book. Much back-and-forth discussion among agent, author and editor produced the title His Majesty’s Dragon for the first book and Temeraire as the overall series title.

Delivery dates were solidified, an appropriate advance agreed upon-and we had a deal. Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon (Random House) goes on sale March 28, and two sequels are to follow in April and May. Foreign rights have been sold to HarperCollins in the United Kingdom, Random House Germany, De Boekerij in Holland and Santillana in Spain.

Naomi Novik, Author, ( is a New York City-based writer who studied English Literature at Brown University.

What’s particularly interesting is that Between Wind and Water didn’t begin with dragons—it began with an era: the Age of Sail and the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve long had a passion for the language and the monumental, almost legendary quality of this time period. I also enjoy the contrast of enormous, world-shaping events taking place against the backdrop of an everyday life that’s at the same time recognizable to us now in many ways and yet still very alien.

I was experimenting with historical fiction set in that time period, which shares many of the same challenges as writing speculative fiction set in another universe but with one significant advantage—you can actually look up the answers to questions that arise. But as a writer, I still had to build a world for my readers and make it convincing and comprehensible. While working on that process of world building, I found it natural to wonder, What would’ve happened if the world had been different? What if this key event hadn’t happened, or happened at a different time? What if the technology were more advanced, or less?

What if there were dragons?

I’ve loved the idea of dragons since I was a child reading The Hobbit—an affection that’s held through many variations on the theme. I felt strongly that combining the two would allow me to put an original, speculative twist on both the Napoleonic era itself and the treatment of dragons.

Almost immediately, I knew what I wanted to do with the book. The main characters became real to me very quickly, and from then on, the question of whether a novel about a dragon was the best choice from a marketing standpoint became moot.

I had the enormous advantage, going in, of having an agent I trusted completely. I knew she was going to send the book to Del Rey first, which seemed like an ideal choice, and I also knew she was going to be thinking beyond this first sale, considering this novel as the first step in an ongoing relationship.

I had a brief stint as a slush-pile reader back in my undergrad days, so I knew very well the kind of volume of works editors see from first-time novelists. Even though my manuscript wasn’t coming in through the slush, I was warned by my agent and other friends in publishing not to sit by the phone waiting.

In the meantime, I worked on manuscript revisions with advice from several longtime and trusted first reader s. I also considered ideas for the further adventures of my main characters. All my agent and I were hoping for at this stage was to sell the one novel, but I already knew that I had more stories to tell about my characters, though no idea as yet whether anyone would want to publish them. I figured I wouldn’t get the chance until after the first novel had been published and the numbers were in—if we were lucky enough to get that far in the first place.

As it turned out, we heard from Del Rey very quickly. When my agent called me with the idea of a multiple-book deal, I was as thrilled as one might expect: not only did my agent and Del Rey like the work, but they were also offering a degree of commitment to me as a writer and to the series—far more than I’d ever hoped for as a first-time novelist.

The big question was whether I could get the two additional novels done in time. I had to be certain I could do it before we agreed to the plan. Fortunately, I’m a fairly quick writer. I tend to work best in very fast-paced spurts; the first draft of Between Wind and Water took me two months.

And because I spent the intervening time working, I had a manuscript that was fairly polished, so I could start on the second book right away. I was also able to quickly go through the ideas I’d already sketched out for further adventures and write up brief synopses for the proposed second and third books for my agent to pass on to Betsy Mitchell.

Both in making the deal and beyond, I’ve tried to approach the process of bringing His Majesty’s Dragon and its sequels to print as a true collaboration, and keeping that mindset is the best advice I can offer any new writer. Of course the most important piece of the book-deal puzzle is the book itself—but once I’d caught an editor’s interest with the work, I wanted to make the most of that interest. Being responsive to her requests and suggestions wasn’t simply a matter of closing a deal but also of making the right deal, one that would ideally lead to the best outcome for everyone involved: a successful release.

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