How does a book capture everyone's attention, particularly when the world around us is chaotic, uncertain, and daunting? Is it the author's ability to weave a story? Relatable characters? Strong editing? An effective marketing campaign? Relentless media buzz? At the latest NYU Media Talk presented by the NYU SPS Center for Publishing, this is precisely what was discussed. And the answer lies within the publication of The New York Times bestseller The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
"The best thing about quarantine was this book," said Bennett. The Vanishing Half, published by Riverhead Books at Penguin Random House, received instant critical acclaim and rose to every bestseller's list in no time. It was the kind of book that could be considered a blessing during the tribulations of last year. Or, as the moderator, Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, described it: "a rare, happy quarantine story." In times like this, when publishers pushed books back from their publication dates, The Vanishing Half successfully crossed the finish line. Ashley Sutton, Marketing Director of Riverhead Books, described the campaign as "a resilience." “The book that holds my attention through tough times is the book I want to publish," said Sarah McGrath, Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President of Riverhead and editor of this book.
We MS in Publishing students, eager to dip our toes into the alluring tides of the publishing world, wanted to know it all. Where did the inspiration come from, when did Bennett start writing, and was she always so successful? How does an editor approach a thought-provoking story? Also, why are we so fascinated by twins, the two characters at the heart of the novel?
So, how did Bennett get here?
Panelists Ashley Sutton (top left), Pamela Paul (top right), Sarah McGrath (bottom left), and Brit Bennett (bottom right)
What might seem like instant success was a process that took years in the making. Bennett started her first book, The Mothers, during graduate school, and took ten years to develop it. "I don't know why it took me ten years,” she said, then attributing this time to needing to experience "more life." She said she wanted to grow up alongside the characters of her book.
McGrath, who couldn't imagine a career for herself without reading in it, recalls being instantly attracted to the voice of The Mothers. “It had so much personality,” she recalled. "You can't edit emotion into the characters; that's a talent that comes from the author." When the time came to publish The Vanishing Half, McGrath knew this was a book the world needed to see.
The Vanishing Half delves into tough concepts and confronts the reader to think differently. Bennett explores issues of "passing," sisterhood, motherhood, and colorism in America. What does life look like when one twin "passes"? Is "passing" punishable? Bennett also probed the concept of identity, or, as she puts it, structures: "How you become you and how me becomes me."
How do you edit a story so profoundly layered? Is it a collaborative effort between author and editor? "I am my own worst critic," claimed Bennett, admitting that it felt good to hand the manuscript over for editing to get some distance from the story. "Brit is a gifted listener," says McGrath about the editing process.
Publishing the book during a pandemic was no easy task. "Riverhead Books loves a challenge," said Ashley Sutton. Besides hitting bestseller lists, The Vanishing Half, which has sold more than one million copies, found its way into college syllabi, book clubs, virtual book tours, and late night talk appearances. It will even be a limited series on HBO.
So, what did we learn about why the book is such a success? I believe it's the author's tireless efforts and deep talent, the patience and skills of the editor, the perseverance and creativity of the marketing department, the attentiveness of media brands and book reviewers, and ultimately the eventual and everlasting joy of the reader. Observing this conversation unfold was the utmost privilege for us publishing students.
By Ishani Singh, NYU SPS MS in Publishing ‘22
Ishani is a graduate student at the NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program. She spends her spare time volunteering as a UN Youth Representative with the Women’s National Book Association. She is currently working as an editorial intern at the Virginia Quarterly Review.
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