Here's an understatement: it's hard out there for a small press.
At a time when the bestseller lists are loaded with entries from only America's largest houses, when millions will soon be paid for Valerie Plame's memoir and Little, Brown mourns the half-mill it spent on a bad, very bad Harvard student, a tiny book from a heretofore nonexistent publishing house suddenly becomes the highest-ranking title on Amazon.com for three straight days.
Well, those on the left looking for hope should be cheered: the book, How Would a Patriot Act?, addresses what the author, Glenn Greenwald, deems to be the deceptions of the Bush administration, in a well-reasoned and lively 146 pages priced at $12. But let's not be partisan: the sudden success of Patriot spells good news for the whole publishing business, especially that of the grassroots, independent variety. Why? Because the book became Amazon's #1 "without a single penny being spent on marketing or advertising," according to Greenwald. The book's sudden and so far enduring popularity (at press time it had dropped only to #160) is all the more intriguing when you consider that the book doesn't, technically, exist yet; its now sold-out first printing of 20,000 copies will be shipped the week of May 15. (A second printing is in the works.)
How did a San Francisco—based do-gooder telecom organization—20-year-old Working Assets is primarily a wireless and credit card company that has donated millions to what cofounder and CEO Laura Scher describes as "progressive" causes, such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood—suddenly find itself in the book business? First, it hired editorial director Jennifer Nix "to find ways to bring the progressive message into larger media." She immediately contacted Greenwald, who'd recently given up his day job as a lawyer to blog full time on glenngreenwald.blogspot. He agreed to write a book for a small advance in a short time. Patriot was finished in April and sent out to a printer (Donnelley, which Working Assets had used to print some of its phone bills and flyers); while still in conversations with PGW about distribution, Nix got an ISBN number and then submitted the book to Amazon. For promotion, she relied on Greenwald's popular blog and "about five or six" other bloggers to spread the word. Obviously, they managed to do so.
The Internet has been used wisely as a promotional tool before (I'm thinking of author MJ Rose, among many other early adopters) and, as many an anxious refresh-button—pushing author will tell you, a couple of good days on one Web retailer does not necessarily a bestseller make. Still, now that virtually every major retail outlet, online and off, has placed its orders, I can't help thinking we're going to be hearing and seeing more of Greenwald and his Patriot Act.
And more of Working Assets Publishing, too, which is planning to release a few more titles in the coming year. While I doubt this tiny company's P&L is ever going to rival, say, Simon & Schuster's, the big guys might do well to consider what Scher & Co. have done. "We really don't know anything about the book business," Scher told me. Yeah, well, suddenly, Working Assets is looking a whole lot savvier than any number of companies 20 times its size.
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