A book editor’s job is to winnow through manuscript submissions and choose those that will please the most readers. For every manuscript we buy, we read many, many more that we turn down. One reason for rejection is that the concept has been overused–the young orphan boy who discovers his special heritage and must go on a quest to achieve his true place in the world, for example.
And yet even the hoariest of chestnuts can gleam like new in the hands of a truly special writer. That was the case with the manuscript titled Temeraire when it landed on my desk in 2004 from a writer I’d never heard of, Naomi Novik.
Naomi’s agent, Cynthia Manson, had called ahead to tell me she was giving me an exclusive look at the project….
When she told me it was a dragon story, I sighed to myself. What new angle could there be on this most classic of fantasy topics? Aside from the dragons of legend and lore, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, Gordon R. Dickson, Diana Wynn Jones, Jane Yolen, Weis & Hickman, Melanie Rawn and so many others had already published beloved, memorable series. Was there room for another dragon in readers’ minds?
But because Cynthia is a perspicacious agent with strong commercial taste, and because she was giving me an exclusive on the manuscript (a boon to an editor–it means that she was giving me the first chance to make a deal on this project before she sent it out to all my competitors)–I gave Temeraire a quick look.
And immediately reverted to my pre-professional life as a reader. Not somebody who was being paid to seek out writing talent, not a picker of literary nits who was taking notes for an eventual rewrite letter to the author. Just a fantasy-lover who was captivated by Naomi Novik’s world–a world I’d never been to before–and by her characters, most especially Capt. William Laurence and the intelligent, sometimes infuriating, and utterly loyal dragon who becomes his fighting partner in the war against Napoleon: Temeraire.
When a manuscript transforms me into the fan-geek of my youth, it’s time for action. Knowing that readers would want more about Laurence and Temeraire as soon as they’d finished the first novel–which we renamed His Majesty’s Dragon–we suggested Naomi write two more adventures in the series, which we would then publish back to back in three subsequent months. Naomi obliged, we published, and the Temeraire series has become one of the most successful Del Rey ever brought out. Foreign rights have been sold in 27 territories, from Iceland to Israel, and Peter Jackson has optioned the film rights.
As we approach the pub date for Book 6, Tongues of Serpents, we celebrate the endless capacity of the human imagination and its ability to make the old new, to create something out of nothing, and to thrill readers everywhere. Congratulations, Naomi!