Author Gillian Flynn and writer-producer Lena Waithe are curating what could be the next wave of notable authors through their partnership with indie publisher Zando.
Announced today, Flynn and Waithe are Zando’s founding partners and veritable test subjects in Zando founder and CEO Molly Stern’s bet to upend the publishing industry’s staid tactics, or lack thereof, in surfacing new talent.
Stern’s mission is to give influential creators, platforms, authors, and institutions their own imprints to discover, develop, and publish fresh voices. “Publishers expect authors to walk in with this massive platform and 10,000 Twitter followers and a huge presence on Instagram. One of our core beliefs is that authors should be authors,” Stern says. “You have to be able to develop ideas and stories. That’s your job. It’s the job of the publisher to help realize the opportunity to expand the platform of that author.”
As the storied publisher behind such blockbuster titles as Flynn’s Gone Girl, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and Andy Weir’s The Martian, Stern surprised the industry when she announced that she was leaving Crown Publishing Group to start Zando, in 2020 in lieu of launching her own imprint within the company. Stern actually ran something of a beta test for Zando while at Crown when she established Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint in 2018. While people at Crown were supportive of a celebrity-run imprint, Stern says that her decision to start Zando came down to having a more effective channel for publishing new authors.
“The size of these organizations now really makes it hard for an interesting book to break through if it doesn’t have all the resources,” Stern says. “I think publishers would admit this: You basically make priorities. You’re not getting the breadth of support across a list. Four titles are getting support over the year, and everything else is sort of left to fend for itself.”
As it stands, in Stern’s opinion, most major publishers will buy a book but then don’t have adequate marketing resources to support it. What’s become a new author’s saving grace has been landing on a book club or a reading list of someone highly influential, e.g. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Reese Witherspoon, or Bill Gates.
“Our model is, six to eight months before books hits the shelves, we’re saying to retailers, this is Lena Waithe’s book. Here’s what she’s doing when the book goes on sale. Here’s how she supported the author. Here are all of the things you can rely on,” Stern says. “We are basically building a business that opts out of surprise, out of lightning striking.”
To ensure that happens, Stern was deliberate in choosing partners who “believe in books as I do, as the source code of the world’s best stories and ideas,” she says, “and people who have a real clarity of identity that lends themselves to certain content.”
For example, working with Flynn on Gone Girl, which the author herself admits is a “strange book.”
“You find out whodunnit right in the middle. It changes perspectives. It has two narrators that aren’t particularly lovable. It had this ending that was very open-ended,” Flynn says. “I’ve had people stand in line at book events and slam the book down and say, ‘I hated this book! I hated the ending!’ But I always prefer a strong reaction than no reaction.”
Stern acknowledged all those potential sticking points, but when Flynn said it was the story she wanted to tell, she championed her vision. “That, to me, made me know that what [Stern] was telling me when she was pitching the imprint idea was very true,” Flynn says. “It was going to be an imprint deliberately looking for unique, underrepresented voices.”
“Gillian basically invented a genre with Gone Girl,” Stern adds. “A person who’s capable of doing something like that is also capable of identifying great books that feel special.”
The typical workflow for Zando’s imprints involves the company’s editorial team collaborating with partners to spotlight talent and shape their stories, and then handle the actual editing process. Zando is publishing three books in spring 2022 from its main publishing division. Flynn and Waithe’s imprints are each slated to publish four to six books over the course of three years. “I just can’t tell you how strongly I feel about the written word,” Flynn says. “I love podcasts and TV and movies, but it takes a commitment to pick up a book that it doesn’t take to float into the next Netflix show, which I do all the time.”
“But there are so many opinions and so much great voice out there that I just feel isn’t being heard amidst a lot of noise,” Flynn continues. “I guess I’ll be making noise, too, but I feel like [my partnership with Zando is] adding to the cacophony for a really useful purpose.”
In the coming years, Stern will have the answer to the question she asked when starting Zando: “How can I publish great and interesting work by writers who don’t have a platform?” she says. “Publishers just don’t know how to do that anymore. So they say to an author, ‘I love your book, but you have no relationship to the ‘world,’ so we don’t know how to support you.’ That’s a sacred mission for us.”