A curious coincidence?

I happened to notice that three blockbuster works of fantasy all got published, at least according to the stories told by their own publishers, when a young reader of the manuscript (or self-published book in one of the cases below) happened to recommend the work to an adult parent who was influential in the literary world.

One somewhat recent case was the acquisition of young author Christopher Paolini’s first book, Eragon (the first in an eventual four books in his bestselling Inheritance cycle).

According to the UK’s The Guardian:

Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw [Paolini’s self-published] book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers [Knopf, where it ended up on the desk of Michelle Frey, who ended up making a mega-offer to Paolini]. Paolini’s feet have barely touched the ground since.

A similar young-reader-as-advocate story is told about the publishing of J.K. Rowling’s first Happy Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

It’s not every exec who turns to his 8-year-old daughter for advice. But that’s what publisher Nigel Newton did when he received a manuscript from an unknown children’s author in 1997. The founder of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC handed Alice a sheaf of papers and asked her to read them. “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying: ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else,”‘ says the 49-year-old Newton.

The third example: the decision to acquire J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was similarly influenced by a very young reader. Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

Rayner Unwin took charge of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin in 1968 after the death of his father, Sir Stanley. The senior Unwin paid his son a shilling when he was 10 to write a reader’s report on a manuscript by J. R. R. Tolkien called ”The Hobbit.” The title, published in 1937, became a classic. . . . ”My father still has a copy of that reader’s report,” said Merlin Unwin, who noted that it included observations in schoolboy handwriting like: ”This is an excellent book. This will appeal to all children between the ages of 7 and 9.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

I do suspect this is more than just a coincidence. It says a number of things about how fantasy novels (and many other works of fiction) are chosen for publication. First, for the work of new, unknown authors, it’s a non-scientific, somewhat random process of luck. Many good works, undoubtedly—and perhaps some great ones—never make it out of the slush-pile oblivion for lack of an enthusiastic and well-connected advocate.

It also says something about the basic appeal of fantasy and how it often crosses the “intended recommended age-categories” often assigned to books. The Harry Potter series and The Hobbit are preeminent examples; both were marketed at first as children’s books, but have achieved a devoted readership among adults.

And of course, good works of fantasy (like many good works of genre-based literature) are much-loved by readers, who appreciate a good story and the richness of adventure, magic, and all that . . . but this may be under-appreciated by acquisitions editors seeking more “literary’ (i.e., non-genre-tainted) standards. (In the case of Tolkien, The Hobbit helped to established its genre. But at the time, many literary reviewers did not know what to make of this strangely appealing tale.)

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from these three bonanza-blockbuster tales of publishing serendipity.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)