Miwa Messer’s Great New Writers

Cat Richardson
From the May/June 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Now in its twenty-fifth year, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program has promoted the work of over eighteen hundred emerging fiction and nonfiction writers. The program’s selection committee chooses around sixty titles annually from about a thousand newly published books for special promotion online and in more than six hundred fifty Barnes & Noble bookstores across the nation. And the program has built a reputation for finding talent early—books such as Phil Klay’s National Book Award–winning short story collection, Redeployment, and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, have been selections before going on to popular acclaim. Each year the selected books are also considered for the Discover Great New Writers Award, which is judged by a guest panel of established writers, and offers a first-place prize of ten thousand dollars and additional promotion. (Publishers may submit titles to the program throughout the year; the next deadline, for books published in November or December 2015, is June 18). Miwa Messer, the current director, recently spoke about the program’s goals and process.

How do books get chosen for the Discover Great New Writers program?
What we do is we get together and vote, and by [we] I mean the Discover selection committee. We’re booksellers from around the country and the company. We’re voracious readers. We read every single submission that comes down the pike. It’s the smartest book group that anyone could be part of—I think that might be the easiest way to describe it. I’ve seen booksellers change each other’s minds. They are opinionated, and they are awesome, and I’m extremely fond of them.

How does submitting to the program work?
Publishers send us submissions, but it’s a combination of me chasing down writers whose published stories I’ve seen, working with agents and editors and sales reps, and just spending a lot of time talking to people about whom they’re reading and what [they find] interesting. And the buyers, always the buyers. The one thing that I can’t stress enough is that this is a collaborative process. Everything in the business is collaborative. You start with writers and you go from there. But it’s a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time reading, and a lot of time just talking to people. I talk to customers every single day about this program.

We’ve had about eighteen hundred selections in our twenty-five years. Eighteen hundred writers who were introduced to readers around the country. And it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction. We try to split between the two [though] it doesn’t always work out that way. We work three to six months in advance of a book’s publication date. We are not publishing original work. Sometimes people think that we only do debuts, and that’s not true.

What kind of work is the committee looking for?
Essentially what we’re looking for is extraordinary storytelling. We look for narrative voice first, always. It’s the kind of book that [makes] you want to grab someone and say, “Hey, you need to read this now. I know you don’t know who this author is, but you need to read this now.” We do a lot with short story collections, which is a terrific way, obviously, to introduce writers to readers, but we’re also looking for the kind of book that you don’t just read, you experience—this entire world has been created for you, and if the writer is talented enough to get you to buy in right away? That’s what we’re looking for.

How are the winners of the Discover Awards chosen?
Let’s separate the awards from the program: The awards are given for titles that are already selected for the program, so the first [step] is being selected for the program. Once we select you for the program, your book goes into every single one of our stores, which is over six hundred fifty at the moment. That’s from Anchorage down to Miami, and every suburb in between. It’s a tremendous opportunity. We have booksellers in the stores who manage the Discover Great New Writers [display] for me, and they’re absolutely on the ground talking to customers about [the titles]. They love it as much as we do, so it’s a really hands-on piece of what we do as booksellers.

Of the titles that are chosen for the program, I go out and ask six writers to serve as judges for the Discover Awards. Some are alumni [of the program], some are not. They’re all names that you would recognize. For instance, our twenty-fifth anniversary judges for fiction are Ben Fountain, Eleanor Brown, and Thrity Umrigar. The nonfiction judges are Cheryl Strayed, Scott Anderson, and Candice Millard. And they all work together. I send them the books as they’re selected, and they then come back with a shortlist of three titles. And from those three titles they tell me what their prize rankings are. The first-place winners get ten thousand dollars, the second-place winners get five thousand dollars, and the third-place winners get twenty-five hundred dollars. It’s a total of thirty-five thousand dollars for six writers. It’s a really amazing moment when you get to see these folks acknowledged by not only their peers, but also by readers, by booksellers. The first-place prize also carries a year of additional promotion both in stores and online. We announce the shortlist in early February; winners are always announced the first Wednesday of March.

[The 2014 winners include Evie Wyld in fiction for her novel All the Birds, Singing (Knopf) and Bryce Andrews in nonfiction for his debut memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West (Simon & Schuster). Molly Antopol won the second-place prize in fiction for her debut short story collection, The UnAmericans (Norton); Arna Bontemps Hemenway won the third-place prize for his debut short story collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books). Caitlin Doughty won the second-place prize in nonfiction for her debut memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Norton); Will Harlan won the third-place prize for his biography, Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island (Grove Atlantic). Chris Adrian, Anne Cherian, and Sheri Homan judged in fiction; Malcom Jones, Pagan Kennedy, and Héctor Tobar judged in nonfiction.]

How has the program evolved in the past twenty-five years?
Everything evolves in publishing and bookselling, and if it doesn’t, then we’re not doing our jobs. We have to see things evolve. You’ll see trends in publishing—if I had a dollar for every time someone announced the death of the short story collection! But of course you’ll see different themes roll through and that’s partially a response to publishing, and partially a response to who’s sitting on the panel, frankly. This is how it should be—I can’t stress enough that this is a dynamic piece of what we do. It really is about the writers and the people doing the reading. It will never be static for that reason.

What’s next for the program?
We always want to have the best selection that we can offer. That’s really what it comes down to for me. Reading is a really intimate act, and it’s very different for everyone. There are books that I’ve loved that other people have said no to and there are books that other people have loved that I may not have loved equally, but the fact of the matter is if the votes are there it goes in. And that’s the beauty of it. There is a vibrancy to the books we choose, even if it’s quiet. There are only so many stories left to tell—it’s how you tell them.

Cat Richardson is the managing editor of Bodega Magazine and a poetry editor at Phantom Limb Press. Her work has appeared in Four Way Review, Tin House, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.



How about adding poetry?

Just wondering why Barnes and Noble doesn't honor poetry in the Discover Great New Writers program. It would go a long way toward validating contemporary poetry with the reading public if Barnes and Noble were to recognize that many amazing writers happen to be poets and are publishing phenomenal work.