Raspberries, dark chocolate, glasses of rosé, and six MacBooks litter an oak table on the second floor of a Brooklyn, New York, apartment, giving the impression that a dinner party devolved into a brainstorm. It’s three hours into Paper Lantern Lit’s biannual gathering, where its editors spitball new books for their teenage audience. "I’m thinking Little Mermaid meets True Blood," tosses out Rhoda Belleza, a former advertising copywriter turned PLL editor. The five other editors pile onto Belleza’s idea, pulling her premise in a dizzying number of directions in a span of five minutes.
"I like the idea of redoing mermaids," says Lauren Oliver, who sits across from her cofounder, Lexa Hillyer, like bookends at each side of the table. In a group stream-of-consciousness riff, the idea morphs into mermaids with dual tails, to nymph angels, to a political battle with humans, to Splash, to Nantucket, to sunken cities, to global warming.
"Because of global warming, coastal cities sank and the mermaids live in abandoned buildings..." posits Oliver. "Yeah, it’s like Venice meets L.A. in the future," adds Hillyer, who speaks with the rapid-fire cadence of a teenager, but with the elegance of the published poet she is. Oliver orders everyone to come back next week with a reinvented word for mermaids. And then, without a whiff of preciousness, they’ve turned the page to a new premise.
Though the women are generating book concepts, they won’t actually be writing them. PLL is a "literary incubator," a team of idea generators who invent premises, map out plots and characters, and then match the blueprints with undiscovered writers. And unlike book packagers such as Alloy—famous for generating hits like Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries by farming out the writing to ghostwriters—PLL is as interested in its talent as it is in conceiving high-concept young-adult literature. "With [book packagers], writers are a means to an end," says Greg Ferguson, senior editor at children’s publisher Egmont U.S.A., who has purchased five PLL books. "As a publisher, it helps to know that PLL’s investment is not just in a book but also in the author as a marketing platform."
Hillyer, 32, and Oliver, 30, conceived of PLL three years ago. Hillyer was working as a YA editor at Penguin and Oliver had just quit her publishing job to focus on writing. "We had similar frustrations," says Oliver, herself a New York Times best-selling author of teen novels. "I had ideas that weren’t appropriate for me to write because they weren’t my kind of book. And Lexa was being forced into a mold in terms of the books she could buy." They also wanted to address a perceived shortcoming of MFA programs, which they felt emphasized craft at the expense of commercial viability.
PLL approaches its books like content creators. Once a concept has been selected, the team crafts a meticulous chapter-by-chapter outline. To find a fresh writing voice that suits the project, they root through the hundreds of submissions they receive each month and audition finalists. From that point, it’s a matter of molding the new talent. PLL holds sessions on skills such as "plot development" and pairs writers with historical experts if required by the book’s subject matter. Throughout, they give weekly deadlines that allow for regular feedback.
While a book is in development, PLL’ s agent shops it; PLL gets the advance and owns the rights, while authors get a flat fee, a share in the film and TV subrights, and a percentage of foreign rights. Says Lauren Morrill, a 29-year-old former Harvard recruiter who was chosen to write the YA rom-com Meant to Be, "It was as if I were in an MFA program under the tutelage of professors who then got my novel published."
Since its launch in 2010, PLL has sold every project it has pitched, now clocking in at 23 books—three of which have been optioned for TV or film. "They really are finding, delivering, and cultivating literary talents who should have careers," says Egmont’s Ferguson. "You can see that in the wealth of publishers that are betting on them." Little, Brown; Simon & Schuster; Random House; and Penguin, among others, have all purchased PLL books, which span genres from historical romance to sci-fi. Its biggest sale so far has been the Venom trilogy, which seven publishers battled over before Penguin nabbed it for a high-six-figure sum.
Hillyer discovered Venom’s author, Paula Suhr, in an online writing course she was teaching. "Ever since middle school, I’ve liked writing, but you grow up not thinking of it as a viable career choice," says Suhr, who wrote Venom under the pseudonym Fiona Paul. "I learned craft, discipline, and the industry from working with PLL—and that continues to make me a better writer."
Correction: Origin and Across the Universe, two books originally featured in this story's photograph, were incorrectly identified as books associated with Paper Lantern Lit.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.