Cindy Dobrez is a popular woman. Why? The influential Holland, Mich., middle-school librarian, who has served on the Printz Award committee, is among the lucky few who last week received an advance readers' copy of Catching Fire—the highly anticipated second book in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy about teens forced to fight to the death on live TV.
Even before Dobrez got her ARC in the mail, more than a dozen kids had signed up on her Catching Fire waiting list. Last week “word spread” that she had the book, she says. “Right now I’ve got one galley and 3,000 people who want to read it.”
At 8:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, Leah Matchett, the 15-year-old daughter of one of Dobrez’s friends, rode her bike to Dobrez’s house in her pajamas to get the book. Leah promised to finish it that day—and she did. She attributes her speed (she finished at 2:15 p.m.) to eating only a banana and to reading even while she was walking from the inside to the outside of her house. “It was spectacular,” she says. “I’m always a little wary of a sequel. [But] there were plot twists I didn’t see coming.”
No more details! Like the other recipients, Dobrez received a letter with her ARC from Scholastic’s editorial director, David Levithan, begging her to keep the plot twists secret. “Dear Very Deserving, Very Lucky Reader,” the letter begins. “You are about to make just about everyone I know very jealous.... I don’t really need to tell you why everyone’s going to be so jealous, do I? Instead, I must beg you to keep quiet.... I implore you not to share the twists and turns.”
Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Scholastic sent ARCs of Catching Fire to key reviewers, booksellers, librarians and bloggers, in advance of the holiday weekend and BEA. “We felt like we owed the champions—the reviewers and bloggers,” says Suzanne Murphy, v-p and publisher of Scholastic’s trade division. Also, the ARCs help get people talking about the book, she says.
At its booth at BEA this weekend, Scholastic is giving away mockingjay pins and 1,000 advance readers' copies this Friday and Saturday at 10 a.m. And at the show's official autographing area, Suzanne Collins is signing copies this Friday at 3 p.m. for 200 lucky ticket holders. (BEA is distributing free tickets, on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 6:30 a.m. on Friday.) “Suzanne is busy writing the third one, so her appearance is really precious,” says Murphy.
Scholastic is counting on Catching Fire to spark even more interest in the series. It’s a safe bet. The publisher's decision to send out the book just before BEA is paying off with significant buzz leading into the show, with bloggers and Twitterers giving it rave reviews. The blogger Librarily Blonde, for example, says Catching Fire "does everything the second book in a trilogy should do." As requested by Scholastic, bloggers and Twitterers are refraining (at least so far) from giving spoilers. ("No plot details here, but get ready for some vague emphatic praise because WOW does it deliver," says Ypulse.com.)
Fortunately, Scholastic—which already has more than 250,000 copies of The Hunger Games in print—is producing 250,000 copies of Catching Fire for its September 1 release date. The pub date was moved up a week so that kids can read it over Labor Day weekend, Murphy says. And young readers are ready and waiting. "Kids are getting more savvy about publishing release dates," Dobrez points out. By moving the pub date to the week before many schools start, kids can more easily devour it before homework reading begins, says Angie Kelsey, children’s manager at The Book Seller in Grass Valley, Calif. “And parents appreciate it.”
An upcoming movie should also generate enthusiasm. In March, Lionsgate announced that it bought worldwide distribution rights to films of all Hunger Games books. Collins, an experienced scriptwriter, is penning the screenplay herself. After all, she mastered cliffhangers and pacing during 18 years writing for kids’ TV shows, such as Wow. Wow. Wubbzy!, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and Hi Honey, I’m Home!
Booksellers are almost universally enthusiastic about book two. “I don’t remember being so excited for a sequel,” says Wendy Hudson, owner of Nantucket Bookworks in Nantucket, Mass. She predicts that, like the Twilight series, the Hunger Games books will “arc up” in popularity over time.
Kelsey of The Book Seller saw an ARC of Catching Fire in her store last week and thought, “I can’t work,” she says. “It was taunting me.” She managed to wait until 6 p.m.—and read straight through until 11. She is letting one customer read it “because I need someone to talk to!” she says. “[Collins] did such a superb job of the twists and turns. It was fantastic. I love the political undertones.” She is ordering at least 20 copies—“a lot for us,” she says.
David Richardson, who buys and sells books for The Blue Marble in Fort Thomas, Ky., received the book on Wednesday, when he teaches a night class to college students. “It took me everything I have not to dismiss them early,” he says. His children desperately want to read his copy, but the staff at The Blue Marble gets to go first, he says. Richardson, who sent his Scholastic rep a message that said, “Wow! Wow! Wow!” after he finished reading, thinks the store may hold a midnight release party for the book.
Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, ordered 50 copies. He can see the series becoming as big as Twilight, though he doesn’t expect it to “reach Harry Potter proportions.” “I don’t know if I want to predict as much as I want to promote,” he says. “I will be doing my utmost to help it get there.” In book two, he says, the complex characters are “broadened and deepened,” with Katniss remaining lovable but flawed.
Of course, even a critically acclaimed book with buzz faces hurdles. For Catching Fire, the biggest obstacle to runaway sales may be parents who don't want their children reading about teens killing other people. That's the case for Lisa Crandall, manager of Booktenders' Secret Garden in Doylestown, Pa.. She loved both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire—but won't let her 11-year-old son, Max, near them yet. "He could grow up feeling maybe that's the world he's going to live in," she says. "I don't want him to imagine children killing children."
Still, a few reluctant parents are unlikely to extinguish Catching Fire's flame. While the excitement for the sequel's release is building, some booksellers are already looking ahead to book three. Their immediate concern: that an extremely popular book two will cause Scholastic to forgo printing an ARC next fall. Kelsey, children's manager at The Book Seller, notes that she only got ARCs for the first two Eragon books. And Richardson, too, is sad about the long wait for book three (projected pub date: fall 2010). "If it grows in popularity, they won't put out a third ARC!" he says. Stay tuned.