The folks at Random House Children’s Books succeeded in getting the marketplace buzzing about James Dashner’s The Maze Runner well before it arrived in stores this month. The author’s May pre-publication tour, on which he visited schools and bookstores in five cities, wrapped up with a stop at BEA, where he made multiple appearances and where, thanks to the tour, children’s booksellers were already wired into his post-apocalyptic thriller. And the buzz continues: Dashner is currently on an eight-city coast-to-coast tour to promote the novel, released on October 6 by Delacorte with a 100,000-copy first printing.

In-house excitement about The Maze Runner, centering on a boy whose memory is blank when he awakens in a giant maze guarded by nightmarish creatures, began earlier still. Delacorte senior editor Krista Marino acquired the book from Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich with a pre-emptive bid. “I read a partial manuscript and felt the novel was so different and so exciting that I immediately passed it around in-house,” she says. “The response was so enthusiastic that we knew we had to take it off the table.”

The appeal of the book, which Marino notes has strong crossover potential, is based on what she calls its “simplicity—yet simultaneous complexity. Reading its opening, you’re struck by how disoriented the main character is, but in fact the reader is just as disoriented—in a good way. You are thrown right into the story and are put exactly where this character is. What really pulled me into the novel was that it felt very Lord of the Flies. You don’t find that every day.”

James Dashner.
Photo: Mitchell Reichler.

Marino was also impressed by The Maze Runner’s accessibility. “It has a deeper context to it—it’s a story about identity and abuse of power—yet it is extremely readable,” she says. “We are always looking for books for those reluctant readers, especially boy readers, who don’t necessarily fall into every reading experience easily.”

Joan DeMayo, senior v-p and director of children’s sales and special market sales for RHCB, reports that she fell into The Maze Runner manuscript extremely easily. “The proposal consisted of an 80-page manuscript and an outline for the remainder of the novel,” she says. “After reading those finished pages, no one here wanted to read the rest of the proposal. We didn’t want to know what happened before we saw the final manuscript.” When the galleys arrived, DeMayo says she could not keep a supply on hand. “They kept disappearing from outside my office,” she recalls, “snatched up by people from all departments, not only on the children’s side but the adult side too.”

DeMayo calls Dashner’s pre-pub tour, timed just before BEA, “a brilliant move” on the part of the publicity department, as it helped build—here comes that word again—“the buzz even before we had a chance to pass out ARCs at the convention. The combination of in-house and early bookseller excitement helped us decide that this would be our big ‘make’ book for fall,” she says. “We knew that we had something big here: a story that really does deliver, with a great jacket and a great author to work with.”

Dashner with students at Brook Haven
Middle School in Sebastopol, Calif.

Dashner apparently has a knack for connecting to young readers, booksellers, and educators, whose early enthusiasm for The Maze Runner fueled the novel’s strong advance sales and its sizable first print run. After he finishes his current tour this Friday, the author will continue to reach out to his audience through frequent blogging and Twittering, meeting kids on turf that’s very familiar to them. “He is doing a great job of cultivating a relationship with readers through social networking, which is a good way for authors to sell their books on an ongoing basis,” says DeMayo.

The publisher has created a dedicated Web site for The Maze Runner, which features an excerpt from the book, a trailer narrated by Dashner, and an interactive game. RHCB is also advertising the novel online, has produced a floor display for retailers, and has distributed 90,000 chapter samples in coffee shops, college campuses, and movie theaters in 10 cities.

Dashner will soon have an additional presence in bookstores. Journal of the Curious Letter, published in hardcover by Shadow Mountain, is the first volume of his five-book 13th Reality series; it will be released in paperback by Aladdin in December. The second installment, Hunt for the Dark Infinity, will follow next February.

And fans of The Maze Runner will be pleased to know that the novel is the first in a trilogy, with the second, The Scorch Trials, due from Delacorte in fall 2010. “The author started with one book and then realized that this was a bigger story than can be told in just one novel,” Marino says. “We were all very excited to hear that.”

The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Delacorte, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-385-73794-4