After more than 20 years in the publishing business, Megan Tingley ’86 knows better than to bring just one unpublished manuscript on a cross-country flight. “I bring a whole bag of them,” she says, lowering her voice slightly, so as not to offend any unpublished authors who may be listening, “because they’re usually not very good.”
But one Friday in the fall of 2003, Tingley took off from New York with a 600-page manuscript about a girl in the Pacific Northwest and her preternaturally handsome chemistry partner. “When you’re an editor, everything reads like something you’ve read before, but there was something about the voice that felt different to me,” recalls Tingley, who spent the rest of the flight nudging a colleague awake to read passages out loud. “It was so striking to me that this was a first-time author with no writing training, so to speak, and it was such a strong draft that just kept going.” By the time the plane landed in California, Tingley was dialing her phone to buy the girl-meets-vampire novel Twilight.
In the seven years since Tingley discovered author Stephanie Meyer’s debut bestseller, the series has spawned three sequels, a novella, a plan for five movies (the third one, Eclipse, was released
in June), and a new generation of sullen young movie stars, not to mention an unusual number of babies now being christened Bella, Jacob, and Cullen, after Twilight’s triangulated lovers. Meyer has sold nearly 90 million books around the world, advance reading copies are traded like precious gems on eBay, and academics are even publishing scholarly tomes (Twilight and Philosophy) plumbing the Cullens’ supernatural hold on popular culture.
“I thought it would do well, but in my world that means selling 50,000 copies,” laughs Tingley, publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “This is not normal.”
Learning how to spot a good story is a skill Tingley first began to develop at Macalester, which she chose because of its international emphasis and because “coming from New Hampshire, I wasn’t afraid of snow.” After living in Paris as a child while her father worked for a telecommunications firm, Tingley developed an early interest in writers from around the world, and she designed her own Macalester degree in comparative literature. “I never imagined myself a writer, so working on my own stories was not motivating to me,” she says. “What I really enjoyed was seeing what my classmates were writing, and discovering that I had this kind of clarity when it came to reading their work to know, ‘Here’s what’s working and here’s what’s not.’ It felt like something I could actually see.”
In fact, early drafts of Twilight ended with Bella and Edward Cullen getting married—a plot twist that Tingley suggested postponing for maximum effect. By the time Mr. and Mrs. Cullen were finally introduced in Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final Twilight novel released in 2008, the publishing house had to hire private investigators and armed guards to prevent any plot leaks to rabid fans. Breaking Dawn went on to sell 1.3 million copies in its first 24 hours, a record for the Hachette Book Group USA, which now owns Little, Brown.
In spite of her good instincts about story arc, Tingley admits she could never have plotted her own longevity in book publishing, infamous for its high turnover. Hired as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown in 1987, “I was told flat out that this was an apprenticeship, a one- or two-year position with no career path,” she says. But her assignment in the children’s division coincided with a new phenomenon in publishing—Baby Boomer parents who began fueling a fresh market for picture books. It was a perfect niche for Tingley, who’d also considered becoming a teacher and who created a children’s book library and literacy program at the Boston Family Shelter, a temporary
housing facility for homeless women and children. “She often went to read to the kids at the shelter,” recalls classmate Shelly McPhail ’86, whose 13-year-old daughter Ruby has been the eager recipient of many of Tingley’s titles. “It was a way for her to get their reactions and to learn what books they liked—but it’s also who she is. A lot of people talk the talk, but Megan is all about doing.”
As Tingley rose up the editing ranks, she earned attention for creating a “New Voices, New World” contest encouraging submissions from writers with various ethnic backgrounds, and in 2000 she received her own imprint, Megan Tingley Books. “Then a little book called Harry Potter came along and changed everything,” she says. J.K. Rowling’s top-selling book was famously rejected by several American publishing companies (Little, Brown not among them) and no publisher wanted to make that mistake twice.
Time Warner, which then owned Little, Brown, moved the children’s division from Boston to New York so Tingley and other top editors could aggressively cultivate up-and-coming authors and agents. At one of those meetings, Tingley persuaded a reluctant agent to send her the manuscript for Twilight, which was about to be submitted to several publishers simultaneously. “She told me, ‘I don’t really see you as a vampire person,’” recalls Tingley. “I still don’t know if that was meant as a compliment or not.” In fact, Tingley, who became publisher in 2006, is better known as a champion of books about young people on the fringes: The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie’s autobiographical National Book Award winner; Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, the first young adult book to focus on a transgender teen; and Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, about four children so gifted they’re recruited to save the world from an evil genius.
“If I look back on the books I’ve done, I’ve always been intrigued by the outsider story,” says Tingley, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, writer Dan Zevin, and their children, Leo, 7, and Josephine, 4. “I moved around a lot as a kid, and I had to do a lot of starting over and fitting in. I think that’s why those stories have always been the most interesting to me. Readers are naturally more engaged by the character who’s different, facing a challenge, taking a journey.”
“Even Twilight carries on that theme in her work,” says Paul Raushenbush ’86, a college friend who is now associate dean of religious life at Princeton. “I remember her talking with real interest and affection about this book when it was first being edited. What she liked about it was its complexity. It gets at some of the struggles that young people go through, the questions about life.”
Those themes may also explain why young adult fiction has found such a strong crossover audience of adult readers. “There used to be this kind of invisible barrier between books for adults and books for teenagers,” she says, noting that many of the world’s most dedicated “Twihards” are women who discovered the books through their daughters. “We were all young once, and I think reading Twilight takes women back to that time when everything feels intensified and every decision feels like life or death. We all want stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and characters we care about. But something that’s sometimes missing from adult literature is that feeling of being riveted, a magical experience that you never want to end.”
Watching Twilight turn into a successful film series has been magical, too. “You want your book to end up in the right hands, so it was thrilling to see the movies have been so faithful to the books,” says Tingley. The downside is that when she’s introduced as the editor who discovered the decade’s bestselling book, “People will say, ‘Oh, it was a book first?’ That’s just so shocking, because to me the book is everything.”
Even so, Tingley is not a publishing purist who bemoans the advent of the iPad and other new storytelling platforms. “You can’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that the electronic revolution isn’t happening,” she says. “The last few years in publishing have been eye-opening and scary, but it has also been exciting. I mean, when was the last time there was so much media attention paid to reading? When Apple and Amazon want to be in the reading business, how is that a bad thing? They’re interested in content, and that’s what we do in publishing.
“The medium may be changing,” she says. “But I still believe in the power of a really well told story.”
Written for Macalester Today, Fall 2011