On August 28, Simon & Schuster released UnWholly by Neal Shusterman, the second volume in a dystopian trilogy begun with 2007’s Unwind, about teenagers on the run in a world in which their organs can be harvested and “donated” to other people.
According to Nielsen BookScan, UnWholly racked up 6,094 copies in sales overall in its first week on sale. And UnWholly debuted in the #2 slot in the chapter book category of the September 16 New York Times children’s bestsellers list. With strong reorders from retailers, S&S has gone back to press for an additional 10,000 copies.
Not bad for the sequel that almost never was. “Actually, we didn't know that Neal wanted to write sequels to Unwind,” says v-p and editorial director David Gale. “We saw that one as a stand-alone book. Its sales have remained strong because of word of mouth and because now that dystopian novels are so popular, more people are discovering them.”
What gave UnWholly such a healthy out-of-the-gate push? According to Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, the build to this point has been strong and steady. Five years ago the first printing for Unwind was 20,000 copies, and to date it has sold more than 350,000 copies. “It sold well initially, and everyone was pleased with the numbers, but it was not an instant bestseller,” Chanda says. Solid support from trade accounts, promotion and marketing efforts, and enthusiastic word-of-mouth from teachers, librarians, and teens, put Unwind on an upward trajectory that has yet to level off.
But Chanda points to two other key factors in Unwind’s success. “One, Neal is a tireless promoter – he speaks, reads, and signs in schools nearly 18 weeks out of the year,” Chanda says. Two,” he adds, “Unwind began popping up on state recommended reading lists. It’s appeared on 30 state lists now and some international lists as well. That buzz has added a lot of fuel to the fire.”
To keep the fire burning, the core of S&S’s marketing campaign for the series was to make sure that all accounts and blogs “were familiar with the first book and the reach it had” while they awaited a second installment, according to Chanda. One of the marketing features was an e-original short story by Shusterman called UnStrung, which was released July 24. “Since there was a five-year gap between Unwind and UnWholly, we thought the e-original short story would serve several purposes,” Gale says. “It would give fans of Unwind something to read before UnWholly was available, and it would introduce new readers to the world Neal has created. Since Unwind’s e-book sales have been strong, we thought this platform would be especially appealing to his readers. UnStrung reveals a part of Lev’s background that we hadn’t known, and it ties both books together.”
As a result of the trail blazed by Unwind, Chanda says initial orders for UnWholly were seven times higher than those of its predecessor. Gale believes that the books’ overall drawing power lies in a premise he calls “brilliant.” In Shusterman’s view, “I think it’s the authenticity of the characters as real people in extraordinary circumstances that grabs readers. The story is action-packed, and the action layered on the deeper questions, I think, is a compelling combination, too. Also, the book is intentionally neutral to the issues it invokes [medical ethics, reproductive rights], so readers on all sides of these issues can reflect on the questions the book poses objectively – and objectivity is something our society sorely needs.”
The author’s fortuitous timing and spot-on sensibilities have also helped put his books in a desirable position. “Unwind came out before dystopian literature was known as a mainstay of YA literature, so Neal was ahead of the curve,” Gale says. “That this fantasy is based on news articles and an extremely credible logic – it could actually happen! – is enormously appealing.”
Also appealing is that Shusterman’s titles have been cited as helping to fuel the popularity of the dystopian sub-genre, which was bolstered by the mega success of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (the first book appeared in 2008) and has had readers clambering for read-alikes for the past several years.
Looking ahead, Chanda says S&S will employ a similar approach to promotion for Shusterman’s third title in the trilogy, UnSouled, which is scheduled for fall 2013. “We may perhaps shift the focus now to the consumers, counting down to the book’s arrival,” he says. “And we have another e-book exclusive in the works to help tide fans over between books.” Shusterman says he’s working “feverishly” on book three right now and is thrilled with the early response to UnWholly. “It was very important to me that I not just do ‘more of the same,’ he says. “I wanted to add substantially to what the original book did, posing more thought-provoking questions, rather than just revisiting the same ones.”
Unwind by Neal Shusterman. Simon & Schuster, paper $9.99 ISBN 978-1-4169-1205-7
UnWholly by Neal Shusterman. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 ISBN 978-1-4424-2366-4