Bookplanet: sending the writer on a pre-book tour
Pushing a New Writer Upstream
By JULIE BOSMAN /NY Times
CHICAGO — At a table with a half-dozen enraptured Borders executives in a private room at the French bistro Mon Amí Gabi, between sips of Côtes du Rhône, the fledgling British novelist Steven Hall began telling the Nicole Kidman story.
“I had Nicole Kidman call me at home,” he said, in his Manchester accent. “She wanted to know if I’d change the main character of my book from a man to a woman, so she could play her. But I didn’t give it to Nicole in the end.”
Over the next three days, the story would be retold to Barnes & Noble employees over dinner in Minneapolis, and to dozens of independent booksellers in Portland, Ore. With any luck, the story would ensure that Mr. Hall’s unfamiliar name, and more important, his new book, stuck in their memory. And that they then would sell, sell, sell.
This is the pre-publication book tour, a ritual an increasing number of authors are enduring so that their books can have a fighting chance in an industry that issues, by some estimates, more than 175,000 titles a year.
Unlike the postpublication book tour, which focuses on publicity and public appearances, the pre-publication tour is meant to win the hearts of the front-line soldiers in the bookselling trenches, and more and more publishers are finding it an indispensable part of their marketing plan.
While major decisions are left to the bookstore chains’ influential buyers, the people out in the field — the store managers and the clerks — can wield considerable power over how long books continue to be displayed on prime tables at the front of the store, and therefore over the what their customers choose to buy and read.
In January, about two months before Mr. Hall’s novel, “The Raw Shark Texts,” was scheduled to hit the shelves, Canongate U.S., Mr. Hall’s publisher, footed the bill for four days of wining and dining, with Mr. Hall pitching his book in person to people who can help determine whether it sinks or swims.
Like a novice politician, Mr. Hall shook hands and talked patiently with booksellers both small and powerful, from an assistant store manager in Minneapolis to the head buyer at City Lights, the renowned San Francisco independent.
There were four long dinners on his schedule, plus a handful of media interviews, a book signing, three photo shoots and a meet-and-greet at Powell’s Books in Portland.
It was heady stuff for Mr. Hall, who before this had never left Europe. He was born in Derbyshire, England, outside Manchester, and now lives in Hull, a “tiny, deprived, poor little city,” he said.
He is cheerful, apple-cheeked, often ebullient, even while traveling without a heavy winter coat in Chicago and Minneapolis at the end of January. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s America, there are beaches there,’ ” he said, shrugging.
The trip is the kind of socializing opportunity that most unknown authors would relish. For first-time novelists like Mr. Hall, the odds of scoring a best seller are practically nonexistent.
But Canongate U.S., an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, is betting the ranch on “The Raw Shark Texts,” a postmodern psychological thriller and love story. (Mark Haddon, the author of the best-seller “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” contributed a blurb, calling it “the bastard love-child of ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ ”)
It goes on sale in the United States today, and the publisher has already printed 100,000 copies, a huge run for a relatively small independent publisher. Canongate has vowed to spend $150,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the book.
The film rights were sold to Film Four in London for a sum in the mid- to high six figures, in a frenzied auction involving Warner Brothers and New Line. The book is to be translated into 24 languages, including Mandarin, Bulgarian and Slovak.
And the novel has already received admiring reviews in The Los Angeles Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly, along with a mention in GQ.
None of that guarantees a best seller, of course. So publishers like Grove/Atlantic have turned to the so-called pre-pub tour, laying the groundwork early and telling prized booksellers in person that this is the big book they are pushing this season.
Mr. Hall was not depending entirely on the pre-pub tour to start word of mouth. He had been doing his own promotional work long before the book went on sale, regularly updating a MySpace page ( myspace.com/stevenhallbooks ). Powell’s Books in Portland invited him to write a Web log on the bookstore’s site for a week in March.
“I’m like a parent,” Mr. Hall said. “It needs my attention right now. I’m doing everything I can to help it until it can stand on its own two feet.”
Indeed, by the time the book is on the shelves, the promotional work is almost over.
Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic, is credited with inventing the pre-publication tour a decade ago when he circled the country with Charles Frazier, the author of “Cold Mountain.” The book was a smash, selling 1.6 million copies in hardcover and spending 61 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover and 33 in paperback.
In a business that is becoming increasingly driven by online retailing and corporate buying decisions, booksellers are all too eager to meet authors and publishers in person.
After leaving Chicago, Mr. Hall and his publishers were off to Minneapolis for an interview at Minnesota Public Radio (his second interview ever), a quick photo shoot and, later that night, another dinner with Barnes & Noble executives.
“I can go back to 70 employees in my store and say I talked to the publisher, and that will motivate them to hard sell,” said Russ Wilbur, the store manager of the Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis, at a dinner where he was seated next to Mr. Hall. “I’m telling you, that’s the book business. That’s how it works.”
In Portland, the visit was timed with the annual Winter Institute, a two-day conference of hundreds of independent booksellers sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing independently owned bookstores. Each publisher was allowed to bring only two authors, creating an exclusivity that BookExpo America, the major industry event of the year, lacks.
At dinner there one night, Mr. Entrekin stood up, wineglass in hand, for a speech in which he called Mr. Hall’s book “the most original novel I’ve read in 10 years.”
In attendance were some of the biggest names in the tightly knit world of independent bookstores, who are still not accustomed to being wooed over fancy dinners. “This is a new thing,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla. “Only three times a year do we network like this with publishers and authors. We’re reading it before the hype hits.”
Nancy Rutland, the owner of Bookworks in Albuquerque, met Mr. Hall in Portland. “It makes a huge difference,” she said. “Now I’ll want to read the book, and then we’ll try to get him to Albuquerque.”
Booksellers usually view the dinners as a grand gesture by the publisher, said Paul Yamazaki, the chief book buyer at City Lights.
“What they’re trying to do is make a statement about the book,” he said. “They want you to go read it, and it gives them another five minutes. But you can’t manufacture these things. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and the book has to deliver,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about the book.”
But the effects of meeting an author in a social setting are undeniable. “The back story with Steven is that he’s from where he’s from — he’s a working-class guy,” Mr. Yamazaki added.
“I wasn’t going to read it,” another bookseller said, “Until he said that Paul Auster of ‘City of Glass’ was one of his major influences.”
By Thursday night in Portland, a group of authors was busily signing books in a ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel. Mr. Hall was looking bleary-eyed, taking slugs from a bottle of Budweiser between signing books. He was eager for this trip, to be followed by months of the real book tour, to be over.
“It’s a bit of an odd system,” he said. “You take a writer, the kind of person who wants to sit on his own for three years at a time, and then make them go to a bunch of dinner parties.”
Friday morning, on Feb. 2, he was on a plane back to England.
“It’s quite weird to be hyped-up and talking to a couple hundred people about the book,” he said, “to going home and sitting with my Xbox .”
All the pre-pub hoopla had Mr. Hall hoping for a best seller, he said, and if that did not happen, he was bracing himself for a “world of pain.”
“There’s a big part of me that’s saying, careful — not a single book has been sold,” he said. “Everyone loves me now, but if the book doesn’t sell, I’ll never be able to show my face in America again.”