With an impressive 925,000 copies in print after 11 printings, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones has outpaced the sales of any other first novel in memory, reaching Oprah-level numbers in its first month on sale without the endorsement of any TV or newspaper book club. Booksellers are already comparing it to such long-running blockbusters as Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, only to dismiss those examples in the same breath, because they took off much more slowly.
The book hit #1 on Amazon.com six weeks before its publication date, immediately after Anna Quindlen appeared on the Today Show for a summer reading roundup on May 22 and said, "If you read one book this summer, it should be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It's destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it's one of the best books I've read in years." Ten days later, New York Times book critic Janet Maslin fanned the flames by touting it on CBS Sunday Morning, while Seventeen magazine ran a first serial in the July issue. Sealing the novel's critical success, Michiko Kakutani described it as "an elegy, much like Alice McDermott's That Night," and deemed it "deeply affecting" in her June 18 review on the front page of the New York Times Arts section. By July 1, just a few days before the book's official pub date, Time magazine's Lev Grossman was confidently declaring it "the breakout fiction debut of the year."
Ever since the book landed at #10 on PW's bestseller list on July 10, it's been a miracle of upward motion. At Borders, the book has remained the #1 hardcover fiction bestseller since July 14. "Often, when there's a buzz on a book, demand peaks out before it even pubs," commented fiction buyer Bridget Mason. "But this one just keeps building bigger and bigger. It's because of the strength of the novel, and it's also very timely," she said, referring to the highly publicized murders of several young girls in the last six months, which echo the book's central drama.
The novel has also reached the pinnacle of Barnes & Noble's bestseller list, having unseated the latest installment in the Left Behind series on July 21. "My feeling is that the planets are aligning—a book like this comes around once in a decade," confirmed Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley.
Booksellers and Little, Brown execs agree that The Lovely Bones is a page-turner with an extraordinary power to spark discussion. Ann Binkley, publicity director at Borders, had a typical reaction to the book: "I just couldn't put the darned thing down. I was so excited about it, I asked Little, Brown to send over a few more galleys because I wanted my staff to read it. When they did, we just couldn't stop talking about it," she said. "It stays with you long after you finish the book."
Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch also attributes the book's stellar performance to its wide appeal to "teenage girls, grandparents, women and men. It gets at grief, the most horrible thing that can happen in a life, and shows that you can still find a way to live. People are powerfully moved by it."
'Powerful Women' Take the Lead
In describing the book's path to success, Pietsch shared the credit widely. "The Lovely Bones was embraced by a series of powerful women," he said with evident pleasure, "starting with editor Sara Burnes, who originally signed it as a lead fiction title, and Sarah Crichton, who was our publisher at the time." When agent Henry Dunow submitted the novel's first 100 pages, Pietsch, who was then editorial director, agreed that the house should preempt it right away, along with Sebold's second novel. After Burns and Crichton left the company, he worked on the book with associate editor Asya Muchnik. "It was not something I saw as a huge book, though I loved it," Pietsch said. "I'm comfortable with dark material as a reader, but I didn't know how broadly appealing the opening chapters would be. I think it's the light that the author brings to it that allows people to get past that part and leaves them happy."
Chris Barba, executive v-p of sales, was the next important woman to weigh in. Having read the book shortly after the house began to devise its publishing strategies for the summer list, she found it haunting and told Pietsch "it could be really big." Her next step was to send the manuscript to every rep. "That got their attention," said Pietsch.
As members of Little, Brown's advertising and marketing departments also picked up the book, a consensus spontaneously emerged. "We went to [our winter] sales conference knowing we had something special," said marketing director Karen Torres. "There, we met with the field force, who thought it was greatest thing, too. There were no presentations about it; nobody begged for anything. We just had a wonderful conversation about a wonderful book."
By the end of the conference, the field reps had adopted The Lovely Bones as their "Reps Recommend" title from the Little, Brown list, making it eligible for a 50% discount (rather than the usual 47%) for initial orders of three copies or more and double the usual newsletter co-op. "It's a program the reps started on our own, and we have total control over it. It's not pushed from the top down," explained Texas rep Linda Jamison. Asked if she encountered any resistance from booksellers when she asked them to read the book, Jamison replied, "No. I just told them it had a great premise, and the freakish glint in my eye let them know it wasn't going to be an option not to. And not a single sales rep took no for an answer or accepted a lower order than they thought the book deserved. We got everyone to take a chance on it."
An aggressive mailing of 3,500 ARCs to independent bookstores and the national chains prompted an unusually warm response. Booksellers like Elaine Petrocelli at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., Karl Kilian at Brazos Bookstore in Houston and Rick Simonson at Seattle's Elliot Bay Books started calling Little, Brown to ask what they could do to help. "Love for the book spread instantaneously, person by person," said Pietsch. "I've never seen a book received with such passion and desire to spread it to others. One of our reps gave a copy to a Random House rep, who started talking about it to her accounts. I knew we had something good going on."
By April, when the house decided to tour Sebold, publicity manager Heather Fain found that booksellers were primed. "Usually when I ask if they want to take a first-time novelist they haven't heard of for a signing in the middle of summer, they say, 'not really.' But this time, they all knew about her. That came from the reps."
Barnes & Noble's Sessalee Hensley was the next woman to wield her influence, with an initial order of 10,000 copies. "I took a very strong position on it—not just for a first novel, but for any book," said Hensley. Others at the chain also embraced it, selecting it for the Discover New Writers program and featuring it on a stanchion sign at the front of stores. At a regional managers' meeting in the spring, v-p of trade book buying Antoinette Ercolano talked it up and made sure that individual managers and booksellers received galleys.
Borders's Bridget Mason also decided to take a big risk on the book. "When my rep, Craig Young, first presented it, we agreed it would be perfect for the Original Voices program. Sebold has such a fresh voice. It's compelling and so refined for a first novel." Although she admits that "nine times out of 10, when I read a book, it's the kiss of death, because my expectations are altered," Mason became even more excited after reading The Lovely Bones. "You have to talk about it when you read it: you must share and compare your insights. Craig told me it was getting a lot of buzz, so I said, 'Let's take a stand on this,' and everyone in the company got behind it. We blew it out at the front of store, and put it in our Major New Authors program, which is generally reserved for guaranteed bestsellers. Everyone wanted it there."
The book gained more steam at the Border's general managers' meeting in March, where Little, Brown reps handsold it. "It's always a good sign when you get a lot of store requests for copies, but I'd never seen this level of interest before," said Mason. For her, it was especially striking that Little, Brown didn't try to talk the chain out of its enthusiasm. "When you say you think you can take a big risk on something, you often hear that [a publisher doesn't] want to send you that many; they don't want the returns. Little, Brown took a big risk, too, printing as many as they did."
Although publishers usually focus on fall titles at BEA, the tremendous word of mouth the book was generating convinced Little, Brown to bring Sebold herself to the trade show in early May. "She's the most powerful woman of all," said Pietsch. "People fall in love with her, like when you're a teenager and you can't wait to hear from someone," he enthused. "She manages to review every e-mail, every telephone call, and she's so full of joy and surprise." A week before the show, the house also announced in a full-page ad in PW that it would bring along an unprecedented 1,500-galley reprinting, to make sure The Lovely Bones got into the hands of every bookseller who wanted to read it. By the end of May, the book was the #3 Book Sense pick for July/August.
Feeding the Fire
Little, Brown had originally planned a first printing of 50,000 copies. But within a week of Anna Quindlen's Today Show appearance, the house began "responding to the inventory situation with gusto, just to stay ahead of demand," said Karen Torres. By June 27, when books were almost fully distributed, there were 225,000 copies in print after six trips back to press.
"Many independents had pre-sold their five copies, and were coming back to order 10 more. We didn't send easels for pre-orders, but people took them. That drove reorders. And you had Barnes & Noble tripling their order." Admitting that there was some in-house dissension over how many reprints to request, she explained, "There are always conservative voices who don't want to get caught with returns. But then there are others, like [CEO] Larry Kirshbaum, who believe that every now and then you have to take a shot."
On the marketing side, the house didn't try to break ground. "We used all the age-old, tried-and-true methods," acknowledged Torres. "The real marketing secret is that the book delivers." But by all accounts, Torres has left no stone unturned in her efforts to build on the book's every success. As rave reviews streamed in, her department created easel-backed blowups, placards and café cards for stores with coffee shops, working with Book Sense and the chains to get them out as fast as possible. "This is one of those books that rarely comes along, that reminds you why you chose this business. And it was not for the money. It's the kind of book that invigorates you over and over again," Torres said.
In addition to booking new TV and radio appearances for Sebold almost daily, the house will run a full-page ad in the daily New York Times in early August, followed by a national TV ad campaign later in the month. In September, Little, Brown will blitz bookstores with reading group guides. "It seems like every day, a new piece of ammunition comes in and we find a way to make use of it. It feels like the sky is the limit," said Pietsch, who noted that the house had set aside its marketing budget to do everything necessary to keep the book going.
Meanwhile, as Sebold makes the rounds on her 12-city tour, the 39-year-old author has been drawing standing-room audiences of 100 to 200 people. As she did in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, Sebold often discusses her critically acclaimed but slow-selling memoir, Lucky (Scribner, 1999), about the rape she endured as a college freshman in Syracuse, N.Y. "You instantly want to read it" after you finish The Lovely Bones, said Sessalee Hensley, noting that Barnes & Noble is taking a strong position on Scribner's hardcover reissue of the book. "She is such a great writer, she can tell you the most heartbreaking things with grace and passion." Given the rise in demand for Lucky, Little, Brown has pushed up publication of the paperback, now due in October.
Key booksellers are convinced that The Lovely Bones will continue to sell strongly this year. "It will be a phenomenon through Christmas, I have no doubt about it," said Borders's Mason. On behalf of Barnes & Noble, Hensley agrees: "I've scheduled it for a December shopping promotion, and I'm staying with it until the paperback comes out. I'm likening the trajectory to Peace Like a River, which is still selling well for us in hardcover. Word of mouth will carry a book forward much longer than anything else."
For everyone at Little, Brown, it's been an incomparable delight "to get to Oprah numbers on our own," Pietsch said. The experience has given him a heady sense of "the bookselling, publishing and reviewing community in this country as a single force, coming together with rare unity. And it shows you just how powerful this community is."