From Huntsville, Ala., which chose Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, to Waukesha County, Wis., which read Lois Lowry's The Giver, city-, county- and even statewide reading programs have taken off. A listing at the Library of Congress's Web site (www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/one-book. html) shows close to 100 programs. But many in the book industry place the count higher, closer to 140 and growing.
Russell Perreault, v-p, publicity director at Vintage Books, fields at least one call a month from programs checking on author availability. "The authors are thrilled by it," he said. He is booking Sandra Cisneros's fall tour for the paperback publication of Caramelo around "one city, one book" program requests in Milwaukee, Wis., which selected her earlier novel, The House on Mango Street, and Fort Worth, Tex., which picked the new book.
HarperCollins has been so flooded with such requests that marketing director Richard Rhorer put together a primer for organizations wanting to start programs in their communities. Suggested titles include Sherman Alexie's interlinked stories of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, The Lone Ranger and Ton to Fistfight in Heaven, and Barbara Kingsolver's novel about immigration and motherhood, The Bean Trees. "I don't think the 'one city, one book' idea has reached its zenith. There are lots of smaller libraries jumping on board," Rhorer told PW.
Over the past two and a half years, reading projects have galvanized communities around issues such as racism and immigration, through collaborative efforts among schools, libraries, bookstores and other businesses. Some programs have even expanded well beyond city limits. In California, the humanities council established the first statewide book club last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Steinbeck.
With so much money and energy behind these programs—the Seattle public library spends about $35,000 on its annual selections, while the Chicago public library spends $40,000 —how much of an impact do these citywide reading clubs have on book sales? How are the selections made? What role do booksellers play? And what are publishers doing to support the surge of interest in city reading projects?
Choosing a Book
When Russell Banks arrived in Seattle in 1998 to promote The Sweet Hereafter (Harper Perennial) for the country's first citywide reading program, he saw "people wearing buttons: 'I'm Reading Russell Banks.' It's a dream for an author. I saw a cop with one, a bus driver. They engaged all the community, from top to bottom, and that was the exciting thing about it." For her part, Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, has been pleased with the response to all of the books the city has selected over the past five years. "We do get many people to read books they wouldn't read otherwise," she noted.
Seattle's selection criteria for its annual adult book club is simple: the book has to be accessible to readers at a high school level and suitable for wide discussion, and the author has to be willing to come for a three-day residency. To meet the increased demand for a selected book, Pearl adds between 300 and 500 copies to the circulation. To get the word out, the library also makes posters and reading group guides that are distributed within the library system and to booksellers.
Last year, the library outdid itself with its first program geared to younger children, What If All Kids Read the Same Book? The Seattle school system bought 16,000 copies of the featured book, Louis Sachar's Holes (Dell/ Yearling), to give to kids in grades five to eight, and the Seattle Children's Theatre added a play based on the book to its performance schedule. Because of the extra work involved in mounting a program of that scale, Pearl is already planning the second Kids Read program for 2004.
Chicago—which became the second U.S. city to launch a citywide reading program when it selected Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in October 2001—is another of the few cities that mount campaigns for two books a year. Selections are discussed in October, as part of the Chicago Book Festival, and in April for National Library Week. "We consider bookstore participation [by large chains and independents] a key element in the one-book program's success," said Nanette Alleman, coordinator of the Children's Book Festival. Booksellers put up posters and in-store displays and make reading guides available. They also participate in the selection committee, although the library makes the final decision.
When choosing a title, Chicago looks for well-written books that are appropriate for young adults. "We also think about whether we can get it in foreign languages," said Alleman. For To Kill a Mockingbird, neighborhood libraries offered copies in Polish, Spanish and German. The next selection is Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun (Vintage), which is set in Chicago.
In Milwaukee, one successful pick quickly led to another. Last winter, local McDonald's operators helped get the word out on the city's first selection, David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (Vintage). "They were really behind it," said Milwaukee Reads communications director Lorelei Starck, who credits McDonald's with creating posters, buttons, tray liners and coupons, as well as donating 23 outdoor billboards. The city was so pleased with the level of participation, that it did a second event last fall, for Octavia Butler's novel Kindred (Beacon Press).
Other cities have experimented with other facets of the program. When San Jose, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, was asked to vote on its first citywide book last October, 3,700 people bypassed old-fashioned voting boxes in the library and cast their votes electronically, while only 300 voted on paper. Most readers also checked out the e-book version of the final selection, Francisco Jiménez's teen novel Breaking Through (Houghton Mifflin). More than 765 South Bay residents have downloaded the e-book for free at www.siliconvalleyreads.org, while the library offers 97 English-language copies of Jiménez's book and 39 Spanish ones. As part of the licensing agreement, the e-book version, sponsored by netLibrary, Houghton Mifflin and Adobe Systems, disappeared from reader's computers at the end of February.
Some cities have deliberately structured their programs around books for young people. This winter, Naperville, Ill., opted for a trio of authors for different age groups for its Naperville Reads Everyday Heroes program—picture-book author Kevin Henkes, YA writer Jerry Spinelli and Pete Hamill, whose Snow in August is recommended reading for area high schoolers.
It's hard to measure the impact of citywide reading programs on classroom staples like To Kill a Mockingbird, which sells more than 1.5 million copies in Warner's mass market edition and Harper Perennial's trade paperback edition each year. Yet many city-read picks have enjoyed a sales bump of at least 3,000 copies in cities where they are adopted. "We have seen reorders of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 increase by 20% in the last year," observed Ballantine publicity director Kim Hovey. And that's without Ballantine doing anything special to promote programs such as One Book New Jersey, where it is currently the statewide pick.
Even competing editions of public-domain titles have seen significant increases. When Chicago chose the Vintage edition of Willa Cather's novel My Antonia as its main selection last fall, Penguin logged a 450% increase in sales nationwide in the two months before the kickoff events, compared with prior year sales. At the same time, Houghton Mifflin publicity manager Dan O'Connell worked hard to get the Mariner paperback edition, with a foreword by Kathleen Norris, into bookstore displays. After sending large blow-ups to stores with copies of the book, posting a reading group guide on the house's Web site, and lining up a WGN radio and Chicago Tribune interview for Norris, Houghton saw a 7,000 unit increase in 2002.
One of the most popular citywide book club picks, Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (Vintage), sold 2,700 copies at Joseph-Beth's Cincinnati store, when it was selected for that city's On the Same Page program. "We had the books on display in a couple of different locations in the store, and hung 3×8-foot banners from the ceiling," said the store's marketing and public relations manager, Annette Meurer, who was on the project team working with the Cincinnati library. Meurer has observed that book groups have continued to purchase the Gaines book, even as her store and the city gear up for the next selections, Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (Harper Perennial) and local children's book author and illustrator Andrea Cheng's Marika (Front Street Books).
While Gaines's publisher, Vintage, tries to limit its costs by providing printer-ready PDF files for posters and making it a policy not to pay for authors to make special trips to citywide book clubs, other houses, particularly children's publishers, are much more willing to spend money, especially for frontlist. For Central Florida's One Book, One Community program earlier this year, Candlewick provided 1,000 copies of Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie. "It's still too early to tell the effect on sales," said publicity manager Susan Hershberg, adding, "Central Florida purchased several thousand copies at a good discount to distribute in low-performing urban schools."
When Twin Cities One Book chose Hatchet by Gary Paulsen last fall, Metronet, the metropolitan library organization, placed a $15,000 order for books to distribute to schools and libraries, according to Simon & Schuster Children's Books publicity director Tracy van Straaten. While the house provided an author bio and teacher's guide, Paulsen participated in on-line chats and spoke in person. Many independents featured the book, and Barnes & Noble stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin featured Hatchet endcaps. In addition, Metronet gave away 50,000 Hatchet tattoos.
According to education and library marketing manager Michelle Fadlalla, S&S couldn't attribute a slight jump in sales for Paulsen's paperbacks to Twin Cities One Book. "But even if we can't point to the sales, we find that interest in the author and the book is renewed." For the less well funded One Book New Jersey, where Margaret Peterson Haddix's YA novel Among the Hidden is one of three books singled out for younger readers, S&S donated 1,000 books and 3,000 reading group guides and is paying for Haddix to attend the event.
Scholastic, meanwhile, is aggressively supporting one of the few reading projects launched by a local bookseller: this spring's inaugural Vermont Reads program, sponsored by Northshire Books in Manchester. Michael Jacobs, senior v-p of the trade division, even joined the project's steering committee after the paperback edition of Witness, by local author Karen Hesse, was picked. Scholastic donated buttons and printed a 3,500-copy special Vermont Reads edition of the book, with a brief mission statement inside, as well as a reading group guide. The committee donated 1,000 copies to local schools and libraries and another 500 to the humanities council. Northshire is working on selling the rest.
"This is the first book of ours to be selected, and there's no doubt we're excited about it," Jacobs said. "Vermont Reads has got a lot of terrific energy behind it, and because we were in the process of making our paperback plans, it was a wonderful launching pad." In fact, Scholastic has been so keen on seeing other booksellers replicate the Vermont Reads model that it did a mailing to independents and chain stores throughout Vermont explaining what Northshire is doing and how they can do a reading program, too.
It may be too soon to quantify the combined impact of so many "one city one book" programs. But clearly, when a citywide reading group selection clicks, it not only gets communities reading, it gets them shopping as well.