When agent Sorche Fairbank was shopping the proposal for a smartly designed little book on the takeaway highlights its author had gleaned from his time in architecture school, she was convinced the book wouldn't work in a standard paperback format. "We had presses interested and only one saw the value in the horizontal format, and that was MIT Press," she said. MIT went on to publish 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick in September 2007. The title has since turned into an unexpected hit, selling over 125,00 copies. Now Frederick's little book is getting some bigger attention, as Grand Central Publishing prepares to launch four new titles under the 101 Things banner on May 20, doing books dedicated to lessons learned in culinary, film, fashion, and business school.
Fairbank, who is Frederick's partner as well as agent, said the first book was always intended for an audience beyond architects. And its format--each of the "things" is illustrated with an image provided by Frederick--is something that appeals to design geeks as well as the layperson. The book, which is filled with takeaway life lessons--applicable beyond a drafting table--did catch on rather quickly among architects. But what made it a major hit is the hand-selling Frederick did on his own.
Traveling with Fairbank to literary conferences around the country, Frederick stopped in at independent and university bookstores, met booksellers, signed copies, and got the book placed in stores where it wasn't stocked. Not a fan of the hard sell, Frederick moved outside his comfort zone and talked to students on the campuses he visited and gave them copies of the book. "I'm 100% certain the book took off because of word of mouth," Fairbank said. "The idea was that if someone held [the book], they started talking about it.”
101 Things, before topping bestseller lists on Amazon and in the L.A. Times, topped lists t at a long line of indie stores where Frederick stopped, from Chicago's Prairie Avenue Bookshop to Berkeley, Calif.'s William Stout Books. Harvard Bookstore sold more than 1,000 copies of the title, and Frederick thanked the staffers with a pizza party.
The new books--designed like the original with the same cloth binding, board cover, and horizontal layout--are each authored by an expert in the given field, with Frederick providing most of the art. (Some art in the fashion book comes from other sources.) GCP is doing a 25,000-copy printing for each title and hoping to capitalize on the swells of new graduates crowned every spring.
Rick Wolff, who's overseeing the titles at GCP, said the books, despite the paucity of text, are not really primers on their subjects as much as informative guides for anyone interested in the field... or thinking about graduate school.
While GCP has already gotten solid feedback on the books from sales reps, Frederick isn't planning on letting his bigger publisher do the legwork for him. He's got a list of all the bookstores he visited with 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School and is planning on stopping back in to thank them--and put the four new books in their hands.