Jade City: a MSWL Success Story

by editor Sarah Guan (Orbit/Hachette Book Group), Jim McCarthy (agent, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management), and Fonda Lee, author of Jade City 

Fonda Lee, author of Jade City (photo by Elena Rose photography)

Sarah:

I joined the Orbit editorial team toward the end of 2016, and immediately set about hunting for that perfect first acquisition as I began to build my list here. I wanted a project on which I could hang my hat, which I could point to and say, “This is what I’m all about. Agent friends, give me more of this.”

MSWL gave me a way to ask for exactly what I wanted, and I wasn’t throwing away my shot. I nonetheless floundered a bit trying to distill everything I love in a book down to a tweet. I love ambitious, sprawling, deep epic fantasy. I love cities. I love an excellent fight scene, an art form perfected by Asian martial arts films. I love thoughtful takes on colonialism, modernity, and empire. I love diverse casts, non-Western cultures, meaningful QUILTBAG representation. And, perhaps selfishly, I wanted to see myself in a book like this.

Not exactly 140 characters.

And then, this popped up in my timeline, and I thought, Yes. This.

 

I shouted about it on Twitter. I sent it out into the wilds of the #MSWL hashtag. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would catch me something amazing.

And lo and behold, what it brought me was better than I could ever have dreamed of.

 

Fonda:

For more than two years, I’d been working on a novel called Jade City. It wasn’t my first book—I’d written three published and soon-to-be-published young adult science fiction novels—but Jade City was my first novel for adults, and a passion project unlike anything I’d attempted before. I had a vision of what I wanted to create: a fantasy saga that married modern Asian history and culture with epic gangster intrigue, martial arts, and magic, and was ultimately about family and choices.

It was the most ambitious thing I’d ever done. I wrote and revised, I showed it to my beta readers and my agent, Jim McCarthy, who gave me excellent feedback and told me to keep going. I revised some more. I set it aside for five months while I worked on another book. I knew this manuscript was some of the best work I’d ever done, but I wondered if it was saleable. Maybe it was too different; maybe I was deluded and no one else would think this concept was as awesome as I did.

Ah, writer’s doubts!

In December of 2016, I sent Jim the completed manuscript and crossed my fingers.

Right around the time I hit send (I’m not kidding, it was either that day or shortly after), my friend and beta reader (fellow sci-fi author Curtis Chen) saw Sarah’s tweet and forwarded it to me, with, “Have you seen this?!”

I stared at the tweet in disbelief and mounting excitement. How was it possible that someone I didn’t know, an editor at Orbit, no less, had described my work for the past twenty-eight months in such precise terms? She’d basically given me my own pitch line! (Okay, so my book is more 1970s-equivalent than 30s, but still.) I’m sure my fingers shook a little as I forwarded her tweet to Jim.

 

Jim:

As an agent, I like to play my cards pretty close to my vest. Nothing in this business is guaranteed, but when Fonda sent me the earliest draft of what would become Jade City, I just knew how special the project was, which comes with its own anxieties. Firstly, my client was bringing her A-game to a brand new genre and age group, so I damn well better make sure I’m giving it my level best editorially. Secondly, as much as I wanted to scream, “FINISH THIS NOW!” I was well-aware that Fonda had another book under contract. Although I wanted her to direct all her attention to the bright, shiny, new thing, it’s literally my job to make sure that projects under contract are delivered on time and in their best possible form. So rather than scream from the rooftops that she was crushing it, I sent Fonda some feedback with the suggestion that she keep going. Looking back at those emails now, I’m honestly a bit proud of how cool and collected I kept it while still being encouraging.

I waited for the manuscript with bated breath. But I only checked in once, right after she delivered the book that was contractually due. And looking back at that email, I can only laugh: “Will you be returning to JADE CITY? I find myself hoping so–I do love that novel.” Inner monologue: “FINISH THE BOOK, FONDA, I NEED TO READ AND SELL IT!!!!!!” Happily for me, she replied that a full draft was about two months out. She ended up being even faster than hoped. I got it on 12/21 and emailed her on 12/22 to say that the first third was brilliant. That same day, Fonda wrote to show me Sarah’s tweet.

It was kismet. The stars had aligned. Our office closed the next day for the holidays, but in early January, we were up and running, and the manuscript was ready to send out. Sarah was number one on my list of editors because she had come so aggressively close to describing the book exactly. As I told her when I sent it, “I’m sorry I can’t offer the 1930’s, but…”

The rest is history: Sarah came to the table with a strong offer and even stronger enthusiasm. Her vision for the book matched Fonda’s. It was a perfect match—the right editor, the right author, the right house, the right time. And here’s a part of the story I don’t tell often: I had discussed Fonda with a different editor at Orbit before Sarah started working there—in an “in case Fonda writes anything in the adult space down the line” kind of way. Had Fonda not sent along Sarah’s #MSWL tweet, I wouldn’t have known that there was a perfect match at the house for exactly this novel and could have ended up sending it to a different editor, and then who knows how things would have played out? Thanks to that one tweet, the book went to an editor who connected with it passionately and whose feedback and enthusiasm have been invaluable. There is nothing that makes me happier as an agent than being able to put those kinds of connections together. Well, maybe bestsellers make me happier. So…back to you and your team, Sarah.

 

Sarah:

I’m always a little wary of agents promising they can make all my dreams come true. So, when Jim—whom I’d never met—reached out to me in January, just weeks after my #MSWL tweet, writing, “I have exactly what you’re looking for, I promise,” I tried not to get my hopes up.

Then I read his pitch. And then, I stayed up until an ungodly hour on a weeknight reading Jade City. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was everything I’d wanted, and more. I came into the office the next day with a caffeine-and-adrenaline glint in my eye and told all of Orbit editorial, “Drop everything and read this submission. We have to buy this.”

The other editors, fortunately, loved Jade City almost immediately. The publicity and marketing department was on board from the get-go, and so was the UK team. Before long, my publisher called me, saying, “Let’s try to take it off the table by Friday. Go make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

 

Fonda:

When Jim told me Jade City was officially out on submission, I settled in to wait. Submission is a nerve-wracking but often painfully long process for authors, so it’s best to focus on other work and try not to think about it… too much.

So my heart gave an unusual stutter when I saw Jim’s number pop up on my phone two and half weeks later. Not only did Sarah want the book, she wanted a trilogy, and Orbit wanted to release it later this year.

Needless to say, I did not get anything else done that day. Or that week.

I had only a short time to respond, but the decision was a no-brainer. Orbit’s track record and reputation are top notch, and here was an editor who was passionate about exactly what I’d written, had read the submission immediately, and had gotten her entire team on board to put forth a strong offer. These are the sorts of scenarios authors dream about.

Looking back on all this now, I still can’t really believe it happened this way. I’m not a particularly romantic or sentimental person, but it honestly did feel like fate. I’ve heard it said that there are three ingredients to success in publishing: perseverance, talent, and luck. I think if you do everything you can when it comes to the first two, sometimes the third comes calling. Sometimes it takes the form of a #MSWL tweet.

JADE CITY is available for preorder! Check it out here: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/fonda-lee/jade-city/9780316440868/

You can see Jim’s MSWL page here.

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