Message in a Bottle
Will Schwalbe and the Power of Books

From early 2005 to late 2007, I worked my way up from editorial assistant to assistant editor at Hyperion Books in Manhattan. I always supported two executive editors during my tenure, and while the second boss changed many times, I had the good fortune to remain with the incomparable Leslie Wells throughout. My other constant manager was our editor-in-chief, Will Schwalbe.

Readers across the world are about to meet Will in a whole new way come October 2012, when his first memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, hits shelves. The buzz is already building, so I thought this might be good timing to prepare you for why his book is going to be big. There are many reasons to talk up a new title, whether it’s from an author who already has an amazing back list of books, tackles a compelling and unique subject, or has an early wave of enthusiastic supporters within the industry who have already read an advance copy and can’t stop talking about it. But with Will’s new book, I have a different reason. This is a man I greatly respect and worked closely with for almost three years.

The End of Your Life Book Club is Will’s story about reading and discussing a wide array of books with his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, while she was being treated for pancreatic cancer. As they both come to terms with the realities at hand, they’re able to use their reading list as an entry into deeply personal topics and conversations about gratitude, listening, and the bond between mother and son.

While I’m not a huge fan of books about reading, I’m confident this book is going to be different and compelling. Here are some things I know about Will that suggest it:

1) Once I asked Will what his favorite book was, since I needed some vacation reading. He had many, of course, but gave such a strong endorsement for A Fine Balance that I went out and bought a copy that same day. I’ve blogged about that book here more than once, and as you can guess, it remains one of my favorite books today.

2) In weekly editorial meetings, Will routinely heard his editors present book proposals from major celebrities and bestselling authors. Yet I always saw more excitement on his face when he mentioned one of his favorite book ideas: a tell-all from the shoeshine boy on the corner outside of our office. Will knew a good story trumped everything. He floated that idea back in 2005, and something similar came out in 2008. I always wondered if he mentioned the idea in publishing circles around town and that’s how it came to be.

3) As an assistant editor, I was always trying to discover new authors. Typically the good book proposals went to the more experienced staff, so I knew I was grasping at straws when I read in the New Yorker about a 1930s Russian bestseller that had never been published in the United States. The book was called Physics for Entertainment, and while I thought it was kooky and cool, I feared I’d be laughed out of the editorial meeting when I presented it. But Will not only took me seriously, he helped me negotiate the rights with a Russian publishing house that only spoke a few words of English. Within the year I was able to shoehorn that little known gem into stores. It never would have happened without Will.

4) When Hyperion published J.R. Moehringer’s bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar, Will made such a heartfelt speech about the book at the annual BookExpo convention that he nearly came to tears. Many thought his speech alone was the impetus that brought the book to such a wide readership.

5) Will’s first book, co-written with New York Times editor David Shipley, was Send, a book about email etiquette. I was initially surprised at the subject but upon further reflection, realized Will had a ridiculous amount of experience navigating the delicate politics of high-powered email exchanges. His favorite sign-off, “As ever, Will” managed just the right blend of original, endearing, and not too personal or distant as to make the recipient uncomfortable. That took skill. The book presents both stellar and horrific email exchanges, and even with such a seemingly dry subject, I couldn’t help but find the voice on the page both intelligent and entertaining.

All the anecdotes aside, I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like Will (and he knows nearly everyone in New York publishing circles). In fact, most people light up at the mere mention of his name. Even though I haven’t seen him since 2007, I imagine Will has only gotten better with time and the creative experience of focusing on his own work. He supported and inspired so many authors as well as others in the publishing industry that it’s only fair he finally gets his own turn in the sun. As good as Send is, I’m thrilled this time Will chose to write something more personal. He’s so passionate about books and reading that I can’t think of a more appropriate starting point. And if The End of Your Life Book Club is half as enjoyable and energized as Will is in person, it’s bound to be a hit. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.


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