Between Shades of Gray: The Making of an International Bestseller

In Frankfurt 2011, Guest Contributors by Beth Kephart

By Beth Kephart

By the time Ruta Sepetys’ debut young adult novel, Between Shades of Gray, was published in the United States earlier this year by Philomel Books had already been sold into twenty-two territories; five more would soon follow. It would hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week of sale, earn major reviews in nearly every paper, bask in stars. It would achieve what every author dreams of achieving, and yet this was no vampire story or Harry Potter sequel; no well-coiffed teen sits on its cover. Between Shades of Gray is, instead, the story of a terrifying deportation — a particular story about a particular Lithuanian family trapped in the horrors of the Soviet reign of terror. It’s a story about survival, trust, and kindness set against the brutal fact that more than a third of all Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians would be killed during Stalin’s genocidal campaign.

Many beautiful books that tell important stories do not ultimately reach the readers who were meant to find them. What, then, happened here? How did a debut novel — a debut historical novel — end up beating the odds and finding its way to Australia, Brazil, China, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macau, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the UK? And yes — I’ve indulgently listed all countries here, because look at that list. Look at the world that opened itself to Between Shades of Gray. And consider this: Sepetys’ book was not just sold to international young adult markets. Many territories are publishing the book for adults.

According to Michael Green, president and publisher at Philomel, it all began with faith in the story itself.

“We recognized the power of the writing and the fresh perspective on history,” said Green recently, via email. “It was a story that needed to be told. As a publisher you take chances, some riskier than others — and the riskier they are, the more satisfying to the soul they tend to be. Between Shades of Gray was a gamble that we felt proud to take. If the material is there (and it certainly was) and the faith is sound, it’s just a matter of mobilizing forces and realizing that there is no losing.”

Precedent, says Green, was on their side in the form of that miraculous, international wonder, The Book Thief. Word of mouth was encouraged through early meet-and-greets, targeted galley mailings, focused interactions with book club groups, and the active the support of Penguin’s adult division. And according to Tamra Tuller, who edited the book, Philomel spent the time that needed to be spent identifying Lithuanian communities in the United States that would welcome this unearthing of their past.

“It helped that we had an author in Ruta who was so passionate and eloquent that she essentially sold herself,” notes Green. “We also were patient, not revealing news of the manuscript’s acquisition until the author had revised, revised again, and spit-polished each chapter until it shone. That way we were able to hit the ground running.”

And hit the ground running they did — something Philomel, also known for The New York Times bestselling Andrea Creamer Nightshade series and the National Book Award winning Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine), tends consistently to do. They take on books they love, and they do not let them languish. They recognize the power that good books can and should have.

“YA literature is simply some of the finest writing in the business,” says Green. “We’ve long known this, and we’ve long known that reaching emerging readers is important. Changing the world one reader at a time may sound simultaneously corny and impossible, but we believe in what we do. Ruta’s book allows us to touch people otherwise out of reach and open their eyes to something important. That is literature, YA or otherwise, at its best.”

Beth Kephart’s thirteenth book, the young adult novel You Are My Only, will be released on October 25th. Next summer, she will publish Small Damages, a novel steeped in the culture of southern Seville, with Philomel. She blogs regularly at Beth Kephart Books.

About the Author

Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart is the author of non-fiction, poetry and young adult fiction for adults and teens, including the National Book Award finalist, A Slant of Sun. She is also a writing partner in the marketing communications firm, Fusion Communications.