Five months ago, Chad Harbach was an out-of-work copy editor with an unpaid position at a literary journal and an unpublished novel: 475 pages centering on a baseball team at a fictional Wisconsin college.
A few weeks ago, Hachette Book Group’s Little, Brown agreed to pay about $650,000 for it, according to two people briefed on the sale. It was one of the highest prices for a man’s first novel on a topic appealing to a male audience, said Jon Baker, a book scout who advises non-U.S. publishers.
Nine years in the writing, Harbach’s novel, tentatively titled “The Art of Fielding,” sold after a two-day telephone auction of eight publishers.
“If you don’t have a vampire, you don’t expect that kind of money,” Baker said, referring in part to Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. Those books were the basis of two feature films and sold more than 50 million copies in the past two years, according to Publishers Weekly.
Baker called Harbach a “fantastic writer,” based on the manuscript. “He certainly took his time and made it perfect,” Baker said. “And I hate baseball.”
A soft-spoken 34-year-old, Harbach met a reporter at the one-room 500-square-foot Brooklyn office of n+1, a nonprofit literary magazine he helped start in 2004. He isn’t paid as executive editor.
In October, he lost his part-time copy-editing gig with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., he said. He scraped together rent for the Brooklyn apartment he shares with two roommates from short-term copy editing and money borrowed from a friend.
“I wasn’t excited about finding a new job,” he said, wearing blue jeans, a black shirt and Puma sneakers.
He grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. His father is an accountant, his mother ran the Small World Montessori School, for children 6 and under. He read prodigiously as a child, starting with Roald Dahl. In high school, sports -- basketball, golf and baseball -- temporarily trumped reading and writing as priorities.
“What fascinates me about baseball is that although it’s a team game, and a team becomes a kind of family, the players on the field are each very much alone,” he said. “Your teammates depend on you and support you, but at the moments that count they can’t bail you out.”
David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1,088-page novel “Infinite Jest,” published in 1996, made a strong impression. He read it the week he graduated from Harvard, where he majored in English. What he called the “central American novel of the past 30 years” taught him that “you could write a beautiful and important novel, now.”
After college, he lived around the country doing odd jobs. He began his novel in the winter of 2000, and used early drafts of two chapters to apply to graduate-school writing programs. He was widely rejected, and accepted by the University of Virginia, where he earned a master of fine arts.
“I didn’t think it would take nine years,” he said of the novel. “There’s a fair amount of anxiety to devoting so much time when you don’t know how it will turn out.”
He avoided full-time work so he could write. He composed in spiral notebooks, usually taking months off when he was putting out n+1, a thoughtful twice-a-year journal.
It has a print run of about 8,000 an issue. Among its readers is Chris Parris-Lamb, a 28-year-old literary agent who now represents Harbach. Parris-Lamb pitched the manuscript to publishers before e-mailing copies.
“The enthusiasm in my voice is reflected in how quickly people read it,” Parris-Lamb said from his office on East 57th Street. “These are busy people. I want them to drop what they’re doing.”
Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, called reading “The Art of Fielding” a “deeply emotional experience.”
“The writing seems effortless but makes you care desperately about its characters,” he said, adding that it appealed to women in his office as well as men.
Little, Brown didn’t have the high bid, Parris-Lamb said. Harbach wanted to work with Pietsch, the editor of “Infinite Jest.”
Of the five n+1 founders, Harbach is the third to publish a novel. Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision,” sold 48,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which covers about 75 percent of U.S. retail sales. “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” by Keith Gessen, sold 7,000 copies.
Rights for “The Art of Fielding” have recently sold in Japan and throughout Europe. It’s expected to be out in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2011. Accustomed to living on the cheap, Harbach said he’s in no rush to move into his own place. But another copy-editing job isn’t in the offing.
“I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next,” he said.