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In the end, the story of The Might Have Been and the story of how Joe Schuster came to write it are very similar: They're both about faith.
Margot Livesey is a well-respected novelist — she's probably best known for The House on Fortune Street, and her latest, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, received a rave review in the New York Times — but her students value her just as much for her willingness to read and critique their work even after they're no longer enrolled in her class. It has been more than twenty years since Schuster earned his MFA from Warren Wilson, but when he sent Livesey the seventh draft of The Might Have Been, she didn't hesitate to read it or the next two drafts, or to offer advice and encouragement.
"I've always enjoyed reading his work," says Livesey via phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Even in the early stages, The Might Have Been was a fascinating and accomplished piece of work."
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Even so, when Livesey decided, in August 2010, that the book was ready to seek a publisher, she committed one of the greatest acts of generosity an established writer can do for one just starting out: She introduced Schuster to her own agent. And her agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, happens to be one of the most powerful in the business, regularly negotiating seven-figure deals for her clients, many of whom have won Pulitzers (and, in the case of Toni Morrison, a Nobel).
"I didn't get my hopes up," Schuster recalls. "Publishing a non-genre book is really hard. You get only one shot."
Urban declined to comment for this story (she believes agents should be seen and not heard), but let the record show that she was impressed enough to send the manuscript to a former protégé, Jennifer E. Smith, now an editor at Random House's Ballantine division. Despite the fact that Smith is a Cubs fan (her own first novel, The Comeback Season, concerns the particular psychology of rooting for a team that perennially breaks your heart), she was taken with the book from the get-go, so much so that she sent Schuster a three-page memo offering suggestions.
"I knew I wanted to acquire it," Smith explains in an e-mail. "But I could also see quite clearly what kind of work needed to be done, and in a tough acquisitions environment I wanted to give the book every chance to succeed."
Smith's letter was the last thing Schuster had been expecting. "It stunned me," he says. He spent the next month revising, ultimately cutting 103 pages from the manuscript's original 515. "I thought if I didn't do it quickly, they would forget," he says.
Three weeks after Schuster sent back the revised manuscript, Ballantine bought it. Schuster declines to disclose the sum except to say it's in "the mid-five figures." The cash is welcome, even paid out in fourths, but if you think of it as an hourly wage, Schuster would clear more working at McDonald's. Then again, when you spend nine years working on a novel you're not sure anyone will ever read, how can it possibly be about the money?
The publishing industry hasn't been immune to the effects of the recession. Schuster is what is known in the trade as a mid-list author — a writer whose books are listed in the catalog behind the seasonal blockbusters but ahead of the paperback reprints. Publishers, even behemoths like Random House, can't afford to send their authors on multi-city book tours or spring for print ads.
The Might Have Been also happens to be a mid-list novel, following Chad Harbach's rookie sensation The Art of Fielding, published to great acclaim last fall (buoyed by the oft-reported news that Harbach, an editor at the magazine n+1, had received a six-figure advance), and immediately preceding Calico Joe, the latest by John Grisham, popular fiction's equivalent of a perennial MVP. Especially when sandwiched between those two, The Might Have Been is a quiet presence, relying on neither verbal pyrotechnics nor star power, but rather precisely observed details and a sly sense of humor. Some of Schuster's supporters are concerned that readers could miss it, owing to baseball fatigue.
Still, says Russo, "I think it will have a good life. It's hard to predict anything in the literary marketplace these days. It's so bizarre. Borders has closed, brick-and-mortar stores are closing, then there's Amazon. There are fewer places to get books, fewer places reviewing books, fewer amounts spent on advertising. The best way is word of mouth. I hope the word of mouth is terrific. It may find its audience later — good books tend to hang around."
Schuster considers himself lucky just to have published a book at all. "The truth is," he says, "a lot of aspects about my life are pretty good. I have a job where I get to write and talk about writing. I have kids who have turned out to be interesting people. I have a wife I actually like — that's something that's rarer than it should be."
He's not as immune from the vagaries of the publishing business as he'd like to pretend, however. "I saw the advance reader copy for sale on eBay," he confides. "I bid on it and ended up paying $1.50. I was incensed, but it was so funny — the minimum bid was 98 cents!"
Even funnier: "The condition was listed as 'new, unread.'"