The author of the debut novel Sinkhole, Davida Breier is not, of course, the first book world person to write and publish a book. But she may have one of the most unusual vantage points an author can have: as co-director, sales and marketing for the books division at Johns Hopkins University Press and director of Hopkins Fulfillment Services, which distributes her novel's publisher, the University of New Orleans Press, she works with her publisher to sell and market its books, including her book. And she has the kind of access to sales of her book that many authors don't see for months--or longer.
"I can see orders and requests for review copies," Breier says, calling it a "terrifying" ability that requires her to be "really well behaved." That means when, for example, the publisher or publicists want to send something to reps about her book, "I wonder if I'm treating myself any differently than I would treat any other book from this publisher that I'm responsible for selling." Luckily the answer usually is no.
Above and beyond this unusual position, Breier calls the experience of publishing her first book "great" and the University of New Orleans Press "truly the perfect publisher to have worked with on this."
In 2017, Breier wrote much of the first draft of Sinkhole, which is set in central Florida in the town of Lorida, mostly in the 1980s, and is a fast-paced, engaging, dark, sometimes humorous coming of age novel that features three high school friends from very different backgrounds. (One of them is very wealthy and has a narcissistic, dangerous personality, while the narrator, Michelle, lives in a trailer, but a nicer trailer than the third friend.) There are lies, a death, many cultural touchstones, fractured relationships, explorations of class differences, and reconciliations that come only many years later.
After sending a rather rough manuscript to several literary agents, all of whom passed on the book, Breier did a lot more work and early in 2021 was ready to send it out again. At that point, the University of New Orleans Press coincidentally sent her information about its fall 2021 list, which included a psychological thriller, something that stood out on a university press list. It was also the way Breier had thought of Sinkhole from the beginning.
"I've known the press's managing editor for forever," she says, so she asked about the title and mentioned that she had written something in the same vein. Then she sent him what she calls "the worst pitch in the history of pitches," saying several times that the idea was a conflict of interest and a bad idea, and wondering if he could recommend another publisher. But he asked to see the manuscript. At that point, Breier didn't know that he had "a fascination with central Florida" and that the editor-in-chief had written a coming of age novel. Three weeks after submitting the manuscript, the press said it wanted to publish Sinkhole.
At that point, Breier worked with the developmental editor "who did an amazing job, a really thorough review." Among other things, the editor helped flesh out the secondary characters and often wondered what characters were thinking and encouraged Breier to have characters state more. "She asked me a lot of questions just to get me thinking," Breier says.
Another positive part of the process involved publicists pointing out that Sinkhole was not just a thriller. It could be considered a Florida book, a book about '80s culture, a coming-of-age story. (Breier delightedly notes that one review has also called it a "crossunder" book rather than a crossover title.)
Although Breier grew up in Florida and lived in several places in the state, she chose an area she wasn't familiar with as the setting for Sinkhole. "I wanted it to be set in a wild part of Florida that I remember from my youth, not the now paved-over area where I grew up." (She emphasizes that Florida and its wildlife get "a bad rap," with people thinking that "the animals are the ones doing bad things and when actually they're not doing anything--they just kind of get kind of caught up in people's drama." She remembers, for example, from time spent as a kid in the Everglades, that alligators "don't want to be bothered unless you're actually doing something to really irritate them.")
Lorida is in the center of the state, roughly midway between Miami and Orlando, with a mix of wealthy and poor areas, not built up, with many natural elements that fit Sinkhole. About a year into the project, Breier took a research trip to Lorida that helped in the ways she expected (she found a setting for a tree that's a critical part of the book, for instance) but also had several surprises. For one, she had thought Lorida was pronounced like Florida but without the "F." At the Sebring Historical Society, when she asked about Lorida, the woman responded, "Do you mean La-rita?" This alone, of course, made the whole trip worthwhile.
Also during the trip, she had a moment when, as she puts it, "Michael Connelly saved my life." Driving in a rental car, she was listening to the audio of The Late Show, Connelly's first Reneé Ballard book. The road noise was making it hard to hear the narration so she rolled up the car windows. Less than a minute later she noticed a group of vultures by the road, eating something. Suddenly one flew up, right into the driver's side window. "It was startling beyond belief," she says. "If I hadn't been listening to the audio and rolled up the window, it would have flown straight into my face."
Although she'd love to do a book tour, Covid has made that difficult. For now, Breier is focusing on online publicity (with the help of Kaye Publicity), with a vibrant website, videos and more that use her talents in graphics and design. Earlier she sent a letter to some 400 independent bookstores ("I got some really nice e-mails back saying things like, 'thanks, that was funny,' and appreciating that I'm not promoting Sinkhole on Amazon"). A longtime zine publisher, she's put out an entertaining zine called Backfill about the making of Sinkhole. She'll have a launch party on Thursday, May 26, at Atomic Books, Baltimore, Md., where she'll be in conversation with author and cartoonist Tim Kreider ("he's very funny and very kind and has a good dark sense of humor"). And on Thursday, June 2, she'll have an event at Park Books & LitCoLab, Severna Park, Md.
Breier admits to having been "terrified" about writing a book. "It seemed like the worst thing I could do would be to bring a bad book into the world," but eventually, she says, "You just reach an age where the fear of doing something is less than the fear of never having done that thing. I finally gave myself the space to be bad at it. I told myself, I could write a bad book and it would be okay. The world wouldn't end."
She aimed to give readers "a couple hours of escapism," although the book turned out to be "a little heavy for that." But most important, as a book person who loves to read, loves bookstores, and loves publishers, "I just want to give back what I've been given as a reader all these years." And happily she's done that. --John Mutter