A "Golden Fluke" from Massachusetts: A Story of Fortune and Foreign Rights

Years ago the AAUP would occasionally bestow the "Golden Fluke Award" on a book whose spectacular commercial success came as a complete surprise to its publisher. I believe the first recipient was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, eleven years after the author's suicide at age thirty-one. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the novel shot to the top of the bestseller charts.

In the spirit of A Confederacy of Dunces and other early Flukes, I am happy to report on the startling success that the University of Massachusetts Press has had with David Vann's Legend of a Suicide.

Set mostly in Alaska, the book is composed of a novella and five linked short stories, all revolving obsessively around the suicide of a father, as seen from the son's perspective and based on the author's own experience at age thirteen. In the novella, titled Sukkwan Island, the father invites the boy homesteading for a year on a remote island in the southeastern Alaskan wilderness. As the situation spins out of control, the son witnesses the father's despair and takes matters into his own hands with disastrous consequences.

The manuscript languished for twelve years, spurned by agent after agent, before it was plucked from more than 350 story collections submitted in 2007 for the Grace Paley Prize sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. We have published the winner of the Grace Paley Prize each year since 1990 and have experienced some modest successes and a number of subrights sales. But nothing like this.

Once we read Vann's manuscript, we knew we had a remarkable book on our hands. Yet many a fine novel or story collection has gone virtually unnoticed in the din of our contemporary culture. The first positive sign for Legend of a Suicide was a favorable review in Publishers Weekly, which noted that "Vann uses startling powers of observation to create strong characters, tense scenes and genuine surprises, leading to a ghastly conclusion that is sure to linger." Soon thereafter, on November 30, 2008, The New York Times Book Review ran a glowing full-page review with the reviewer's comments featured in the "Up Front" column. In the next two weeks the book was named a NYTBR "Editors' Choice" and then one of the "Notable Books" of 2008. It also landed on "Best Books of the Year" lists at The Kansas City Star and the San Francisco Chronicle. The latter wrote, "Vann looks into the dark and isolated heart of the American soul. It is a devastating journey that is difficult to read but impossible to put down and equally impossible to forget." At this point, however, sales were still modest, with fewer than 3,000 copies in print.

The review in the NYTBR immediately brought a number of literary agents to the author's door, and Vann decided to sign with InkWell Management, a well-regarded agency in New York. Hoping to extend our reach, we asked InkWell to handle subsidiary rights transactions for the book. We agreed to the usual commission of 15% on domestic rights and 20% on foreign rights, with half going to local co-agents in each country. As we soon discovered, InkWell has an excellent foreign rights team with co-agents in more than thirty countries.

Within two months of the publication of our edition, Viking Penguin bought U.K. rights. The British edition was released promptly and greeted with splendid reviews. The Times Literary Supplement wrote, "Vann's extraordinary and inventive set of fictional variations on his father's death will surely become an American classic." The Financial Times exclaimed, "Vann's prose is as pure as a gulp of water from an Alaskan stream." The British edition quickly went into a second printing.

Not long thereafter, HarperCollins committed to an advance of $25,000 for U.S. paperback rights. But the most important sale was to a small French firm, Gallmeister, which arranged to release a French edition of the novella without the short stories. Gallmeister vigorously promoted Sukkwan Island, bringing the author to France for a tour, and sales took off. Within six months, more than 140,000 copies had been sold. Le Point called it "the great American novel we've awaited," and Le Figaro described Vann as "one of the best writers of his generation." The book went through multiple printings and editions in France. It also won the 2010 Prix M├ędicis ├ętranger, awarded to the best foreign novel published in France. In the 40-year history of the award, only nine other Americans have won, and the only other American among the finalists in 2010 was Thomas Pynchon.

With the success of the British and French editions, other offers began streaming in. We now have agreements for eighteen foreign editions, including all of the usual European languages as well as such outliers as Finnish, Czech, Turkish, Catalan, and Basque.

Back in the United States, the HarperCollins paperback edition was selected by Lorrie Moore for the New Yorker Book Club, and Charles McGrath wrote a feature story on Vann in The New York Times, reporting that "in Europe, where they keep better track of Alaskan lit than we do, David Vann is almost as well known as Jack London (who wasn't really Alaskan) and Sarah Palin." Meanwhile, Chris Meloni, who is best known as the square-jawed detective in the television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, bought the film rights. Evidently he plans to play the father in the film version.

According to the author's website, the book has now been named to more than twenty-five "Best Books" lists from Ireland to Australia. We have been particularly struck by its enormous popularity in France. Apart from the intrinsic merits of Vann's writing and the compelling plot he created, I think his story line may connect with and reinforce European notions about the violence that lingers just beneath the surface of American culture. And it didn't hurt that the book appeared at a time when Sarah Palin was much in the news.

What lessons can be drawn from this unexpected run of success? First, if you are publishing fiction, no matter how high the quality of the work, you need at least one lucky break. In this case, it was the NYTBR review that set the snowball rolling. Second, an energetic, media-savvy author can make a big difference. Third, unless you have a well-established network of international contacts, it makes sense for a smaller university press to partner with a good international literary agency.

In any case, I raise a glass to the Flukes! May there be another one just around your next corner.

Bruce Wilcox
Director, University of Massachusetts Press