Since acquiring the project, senior editor Laureen Rowland has been a passionate advocate for Ophelia Speaks, a collection of essays, poems and journal entries written by teenage girls and compiled by 18-year-old Wesleyan University student Sara Shandler.
But even Rowland has been astounded at the sales velocity of the HarperPerennial original trade paperback, which started out in May with an 18,000-copy first printing and has raced back to press eight more times for a total of 100,000 copies in print. Not only did the book hit PW's children's bestseller list, but it also has made the New York Times paperback bestseller list, debuting at #15, staying at #15 on the August 1 list, and rising to #12 on the August 8 list.
The book's success defies a lot of conventional publishing wisdom. "This is an unlikely success story,"Rowland said. "It's an original trade paperback, not a reprint from a brand author. It's a young adult nonfiction book, but it's not about 'N Sync or Ricky Martin. And it's a book by an young, unknown author, who d sn't have an official credentialed 'platform.' "
Shandler, while still in high school, came up with the idea for the book two years ago after reading an "expert"book, Mary Pipher's bestseller Reviving Ophelia. While Shandler enjoyed that book, she commented to her father that the truth of the particular pressures faced by teenage girls was still filtered through an adult's voice. He suggested she write her own book and gave her its title. Shandler then wrote up a book proposal to shop to publishers.
Rowland was attracted to the book precisely because of its lack of "platform,"and for the immediacy and power of its compelling, first-person voices, what Shandler calls "the view within the whirlwind."(A similar approach will also be taken in Scholastic's Real Teens series Diary of a Junior Year, written by a real-life group of high school friends, which will debut this fall.)
Rowland received strong in-house support for her project, with HarperPerennial publishing director Susan Weinberg eager to take it on and all reps extremely enthusiastic about the book at its sales conference launch.
The school market, which would serve as key buyers as well as handsellers of the book, also was tapped early by Shandler herself, who, during her compilation of the book, had sent letters asking for submissions to about 7000 junior high and high school principals and school psychologists. HarperPerennial kept up the visibility once the book was out: marketing director Jennifer Hart placed ads in appropriate education and family therapy publications.
More than 800 girls of various races, geographical areas and soci conomic backgrounds responded to Shandler's outreach, and 75 essays, some anonymous, were eventually selected for the book.
Shandler's introductions to the thematically grouped essays and her revelations of her own feelings about depression, drug use and sex are critical components of the book. "I didn't want this to be just an anthology,"Rowland said. "And Sara is a beautiful writer."
Shandler, has, in fact, now become an expert of sorts on adolescence, appearing on both NPR and CNN, often with her older, adult counterparts.
But perhaps the most effective pushes for the book have come at the grassroots level. While Shandler has been the subject of some feature coverage, most notably in the Connecticut section of the New York Times, Harper Perennial also is encouraging local media to spotlight essay contributors from their particular areas.
And Shandler spread the word through her generation's key outlet, the Internet, logging into some 100 teen- and women-related sites. Popular teen magazines (Seventeen, YM, Teen People and others) also picked up on the book, and often mentioned it on their Web sites as well as in print.
HarperPerennial is now embarking on a second wave of promotions for its sleeper bestseller, sending Shandler on a second, more extensive radio satellite tour. While Shandler has done a few bookstore events, in the coming weeks HarperPerennial will mail booksellers kits full of "authorless"events ideas, ways to use the book as a starting point for dialogues among teachers, parents and that hard-to-reach YA audience. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, in Kentucky and Ohio, an early advocate of the book, is already on board with plans for essay contests at its stores.
Creating that dialogue brings with a lot of rewards. "I'd be sitting at my desk, doing my usual multi-tasking, going crazy,"said Rowland, whose specialty at HarperCollins is hot HarperBusiness titles, such as the recent bestseller Direct from Dell. "And then I'd get a call from one of the girls who had heard about or contributed to the book. In a small voice she would say, 'Thanks so much for letting us be heard.'"