Without Betty Cornell, 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen would be in a very different place. That is, she would not have a six-figure advance for her forthcoming memoir or be the likely subject of a Hollywood film. Without Van Wagenen, Cornell, a former Ford model and author of various popularity guides, would not be experiencing an unexpected renaissance, seeing renewed interest in her Teenage Popularity Guide, a book she first published in 1951. Now, Van Wagenen and Cornell will see their books published together—Van Wagenen’s as a debut memoir, and Cornell’s as a reissue of an out-of-print book—by Dutton, which is looking to promote these companion titles, and authors, as a unit.
To understand Dutton’s approach, one needs to know Van Wagenen’s backstory. A bookish Texas teenager who struggled to fit in at school, she discovered an old edition of Cornell’s book in her house. Instead of dismissing the book as a corny relic, Van Wagenen decided to follow its tips in her own life. And, what began as an experiment—Van Wagenen kept a detailed journal in eighth grade, during which she put into practice the book’s advice—became a manuscript.
In late June, Dutton’s Julie Strauss-Gabel preempted North American rights to Van Wagenen’s manuscript, at this point called Popular, from Writers House agent Dan Lazar. The two-book deal has been reported to be worth $300,000, and Popular was pitched by Lazar as a work reminiscent of Julie Powell’s bestselling adult memoir, Julie & Julia. Certainly, Powell’s work has an arc similar to Van Wagenen’s; in Julie & Julia, something that’s seemingly a gimmick (the author’s attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking) becomes the basis for a life-altering experience, and an unexpected connection between two disparate women. Van Wagenen’s book, Strauss-Gabel feels, is also inseparable from its inspiration. “It’s impossible to talk about Maya, without talking about Betty.”
Van Wagenen, as she explains in her book, got in contact with Cornell and the two began a correspondence. This appealing story of the authors’ real-life connection, paired with the interest that Van Wagenen’s book piques in Cornell’s original, was not lost on either Strauss-Gabel, or Lazar. After he began working on Van Wagenen’s book, Lazar said one of his first questions was, “What’s with Betty’s book?” Cornell’s title was long out of print, but Lazar easily shored up the rights to it, expecting a sudden interest in it.
For Dutton, the market for Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide became impossible to ignore after the film rights to Van Wagenen’s memoir were optioned by DreamWorks. Once the film news surfaced, along with the story of how the elder author inspired the younger, the remaining copies of Teenage Popularity Guide were snatched up from the handful of used bookstores that had it in stock. This was the point, Strauss-Gabel said, at which Dutton’s in-house feeling—that teens who bought Van Wagenen’s book would also want to buy Cornell’s—was confirmed, and the publisher decided to acquire the rights to Cornell’s book.
Now, Popular and Teenage Popularity Guide will both be released on April 15. Dutton has announced a first printing of 100,000 copies for Popular, and 50,000 for Teenage Popularity Guide. Both titles will be available, simultaneously, in hardcover and digital, and Cornell’s book will bear its original cover. Both titles will also visually nod to their counterpart—on the back cover of Cornell’s book will be an image of Popular, and on the front cover of Popular will be an image of Cornell’s guide. Dutton will be offering, as Penguin Young Readers Group director of publicity Elyse Marshall explained, “merchandising options” that allow stores to market the books “together, or separate.” A social media campaign t is also planned, complete with a Tumblr for Van Wagenen’s book (thepopularbook.tumblr.com) through which, Marshall said, “content and assets from both Maya’s and Betty’s books” will be shared. “The goal is for stores to know these are companion pieces and to merchandise them together,” Strauss-Gabel explained.
When asked the obvious question of why a teenager would find advice from more than 60 years ago insightful, Strauss-Gabel emphasized that in both books “heart” shines through. Strauss-Gabel said chunks of Cornell’s book are devoted to out-of-date trivialities like “wearing the right corsage,” but the ultimate message is about “self-confidence and holding your head high. And that’s what Maya’s book came to be about.... The heart of who Betty is, and the voice she brought to makeup application and rag curlers, there is a heart of goodness in it. That’s probably what spoke to Maya.”