When Gillian Flynn submitted her novel “Gone Girl” to her publisher, Crown, she wasn’t sure what executives would make of the story’s twists and its churlish, unreliable female narrator.
“We knew it was weird and complex and risky,” said Molly Stern, who was publisher of Crown at the time. “We also knew that it was a masterpiece.”
“Gone Girl” became a blockbuster, selling millions of copies, inspiring a film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and creating a booming market for psychological thrillers featuring unstable women.
Now Flynn and Stern, who left Crown three years ago, are teaming up again. Flynn is joining Zando, the publishing company that Stern started last year — not as a writer, but as a publisher with her own imprint, Gillian Flynn Books. Flynn will acquire and publish fiction as well as narrative nonfiction and true crime. (Her next novel, which she is currently writing, will be published by Penguin Random House.)
“The industry is a harder place to break into. Everyone wants something that feels like a sure thing,” Flynn said in an interview. “What attracted me was that ability to give people what I got, which was a chance in the market. So now I get a chance to champion writers who are a little bit different.”
Along with Flynn, Zando has brought on the screenwriter, producer and actor Lena Waithe, who will start an imprint dedicated to publishing “emerging and underrepresented voices,” including memoirs, young adult titles and literary fiction. As the company’s first founding publishing partners, Flynn and Waithe will each acquire and publish four to six books over a three-year period, and will be involved in marketing and promoting the books to their own fan bases.
Flynn and Waithe both have built considerable followings and shown themselves to be versatile in different mediums. In addition to writing the screen adaptation of “Gone Girl,” Flynn was an executive producer on the adaptation of her 2006 novel, “Sharp Objects” and was the creator and showrunner of the TV show “Utopia.”
Waithe is also a Hollywood powerhouse. After winning acclaim for her work as a writer and actor on “Master of None,” becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, Waithe wrote and produced the movie “Queen & Slim” and created the television series “The Chi” and “Twenties.”
Stern and Waithe met in 2017, when Stern asked if she wanted to work on a book.
“Molly was trying to get me to write a book, and I just didn’t want to,” Waithe said in an interview.
She was more enthusiastic about the possibility of publishing other people’s books. When Stern asked her about working with Zando, Waithe developed the idea for an imprint, Hillman Grad Books, which she will lead with Rishi Rajani and Naomi Funabashi, executives at Waithe’s production company, Hillman Grad.
“Our mission is to introduce people to authors they may not have otherwise heard of,” Waithe said.
At a moment of accelerating consolidation in the publishing industry, Zando, an independent company, is something of an outlier. It will likely publish fewer than 30 titles a year and invest heavily in marketing those books, rather than acquiring many more and hoping a few break out, as most corporate publishing houses do.
“I’m hoping we can have a force multiplier effect on books that would have sold modestly or wouldn’t have been a priority at a large publishing house,” Stern said. “Now there will be air around them.”
Like Hollywood studios, mainstream corporate publishers are increasingly reliant on blockbusters to drive profits, and have grown more risk averse when it comes to promoting new writers. Those authors are struggling more than ever to find their audience in today’s algorithm-driven marketplace, which favors recognizable brands and books that are already selling.
Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush Hager and Emma Watson can provide boosts through their book clubs, but those kinds of plugs are the publicity equivalent of lightning strikes — powerful but rare. Zando’s model attempts to reverse-engineer the process by recruiting cultural influencers to select the books.
To combat what she called a “crisis” of discoverability, Stern is bringing on high-profile publishing partners, which will include businesses and brands as well as celebrities, to promote books to their own fans and customers. Zando’s partners will get a cut of the profits, though Stern declined to say how much.
Zando received a significant start-up investment from Sister, an independent global studio founded in 2019 by the media executive Elisabeth Murdoch, the film industry executive Stacey Snider and the producer Jane Featherstone. Zando’s print books will be distributed by Two Rivers, a distributor run by Ingram, but Zando also plans to experiment with unconventional channels like direct to consumer sales.
In addition to its imprints, Zando has its own editorial team making acquisitions. Its first batch of books, due out next spring, is heavy on fiction, including “The Odyssey,” a novel by Lara Williams that takes on consumer capitalism; Steve Almond’s debut novel, “All the Secrets of the World,” set in 1980s Sacramento; and Samantha Allen’s “Patricia Wants to Cuddle,” about contestants on a dating TV show, which is billed as a “queer Grendel for the Instagram era.”