Bookplanet: child soldier memoir a big hit at Starbucks
Disturbing Memoir Outsells Literary Comfort Food at Starbucks – by JULIE BOSMAN/NY Times
Starbucks prompted plenty of eye-rolling among publishing types last year when it announced that it would inaugurate its program to sell one book at a time from its coffee shops with an already certain best seller, the reliably inoffensive Mitch Albom novel “For One More Day.”
“Really,” cracked the publishing industry blog GalleyCat ( mediabistro.com/galleycat ), “what better match can there be than Mitch Albom and Starbucks?”
The answer, it turns out, may be Starbucks and the bloody memoir by a former Sierra Leonean child soldier that it chose as its second book selection.
According to sales figures released by Starbucks, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” by Ishmael Beah, has sold more than 62,000 copies in its first three weeks on sale at the chain, about two thirds of the 92,000 copies that Mr. Albom’s book sold in a full three months.
Indeed, “A Long Way Gone” is poised to outsell Mr. Albom’s book, said Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, in a telephone interview from Seattle. “If sales continue the way they do, the trend line points to that,” Mr. Schultz said. “The success of the book, in terms of units sold, is exceeding our expectations.”
It is an unlikely role reversal for Mr. Albom, the popular best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” and Mr. Beah, an unknown 26-year-old whose first book has had a huge debut despite its brutal subject matter. In Mr. Albom, Starbucks had picked something safe, an author who was already a household name with a proven track record for turning out books that, while frequently derided as simplistic by critics, were guaranteed best sellers. “For One More Day,” published on Sept. 26 by Hyperion Books, is the homespun story of a wayward son grieving for his dead mother.
The choice “was disappointing because it was a book that was a guaranteed best seller anyway,” said Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which published “A Long Way Gone” under the Sarah Crichton Books imprint. “It was no challenge to anyone, including them.”
When Starbucks chose Mr. Beah’s memoir as its second book program selection, it seemed a slightly risky item to be placed among other Starbucks merchandise like plush teddy bears and Sheryl Crow CD compilations. “A Long Way Gone” certainly does mesh with a certain globally conscious, humanitarian feeling that Starbucks tries to project. But Mr. Beah’s memoir is also a grim tale full of first-person scenes of poverty and despair, rampant drug use and violent fights with bayonets and machetes.
Starbucks has marketed the book in an approachable package, emphasizing the themes of hope and redemption over its more grisly subject.
“This showed a very interesting side of the program,” said Neil Nyren, the publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a Penguin imprint. “Their choice of this book in the first place showed that they wanted to do something thoughtful, not obvious, a book that they believed in. And the fact that it has sold so well means I’d be surprised if they didn’t continue in this direction.”
Mr. Schultz said Starbucks was tentatively planning on introducing another title in the fall, and the selection process for the third book is already under way. (As with the first two books, Starbucks has enlisted the William Morris Agency in New York to read manuscripts.)
Mr. Beah’s book has also benefited from glowing reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, a profile of the author in The Los Angeles Times and an interview with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
According to Nielsen BookScan, “A Long Way Gone” sold 80,000 copies through Sunday, a number that encompasses figures from Starbucks and most bookstores and online retailers, but not mass-market outlets like Wal-Mart.
Last week it made its debut at No. 2 on The New York Times’s hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, leapfrogging over “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham and “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin. But Mr. Beah didn’t need Starbucks’s help in achieving best-seller status. The New York Times best-seller list, for instance, is compiled without tracking sales from Starbucks.
Still, “A Long Way Gone” has arguably gained momentum from its association with Starbucks and its presence in more than 6,500 of its outlets. “The biggest thing that’s going on is word of mouth,” said Sarah Crichton, the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books. “This really is the case of the rising tide lifts all boats.”