Incarceron, a young-adult dystopian fantasy by Catherine Fisher, is set in a dark world—a vast, living prison that contains metal forests, dilapidated cities, and boundless seas. Yet the outlook for the novel, released this week by Dial, is bright: the book has received five starred pre-publication reviews (including one from PW), has returned to press before pub date for an in-print tally of 50,000-copies, and has provoked considerable enthusiastic chatter online and in bookstores.
Speaking from her home in Wales, Fisher, a poet and novelist whose earlier books include the middle-grade Oracle Prophesies trilogy (Greenwillow), reacts humbly to mention of Incarceron’s auspicious early reception. “I’m quite amazed, really, but am glad that people like it,” she says. “It’s very gratifying.”
The novel—in which a teenage boy trapped inside the abysmal prison finds a key that enables him to communicate with the warden’s daughter, who is living in a separate, outside world frozen in late-medieval times—had several sources of inspiration. Fisher has visited a number of prisons herself, and found them “horrible places.” Yet clearly they were intriguing.
Then Fisher visited a Cardiff exhibit of the work of Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, which sparked the idea of writing a book with a prison setting. “His drawings envision imaginary prisons as dark holes with viaducts and dungeons, and the whole idea really interested me,” she says. “I started to speculate: what if a prison was a vast place containing whole landscapes? And then I began to elaborate, and thought about making the prison alive and aware of its inmates.”
Fisher found the process of bringing Incarceron to life “absolutely exhilarating.” “It added another dimension to the story, having the prison become a character, one that is trapped within itself and can’t escape,” she observes. “I became engrossed in creating both the Inside and Outside worlds and having them intersect. They are actually different kinds of prisons. That let me explore the themes of heaven and hell somewhat.”
Although Fisher initially conceived of Incarceron—originally published in the U.K. by Hodder in 2007—as a standalone novel, she went on to pen a sequel, Sapphique(Hodder, 2008), which is scheduled for spring 2011 release from Dial. “When I got to the end of Incarceron, I realized there was obviously more to come,” she recalls. “But finishing Sapphique, I did think I’d reached the end of the story. So this became a two-parter, which I’ve never done before.”
Incarceron is the first of Fisher’s novels to be published by Penguin Young Readers Group, and it’s a project that generated in-house enthusiasm from the start. “Our strategy was to build buzz early on with booksellers and with YA and fantasy bloggers,” says v-p of marketing Emily Romero. To that end, the initial marketing plan included extensive galley distribution, a presence at regional trade shows and Comic-Con, a retail floor display, and targeted fantasy/sci-fi advertising.
The publisher then expanded its online efforts with a trailer and a widget (available on Penguin's Incarceron page, Facebook, and on various Web sites and blogs) containing the trailer, an excerpt from the novel, and info about Fisher. The pick-up has been impressive: before pub date, Incarceron had been reviewed or featured on 75 Web sites and the widget had 30,000 downloads.
By mid-December, when starred reviews began appearing, Romero says “we knew we had something special, and we retrenched with our sales group to come up with a national consumer campaign for the novel.” Among its components were banner ads on Entertainment Weekly’sWebsite and a Google keyword search campaign targeting fans of popular movies and books of the same genre. In addition, the book trailer is slated to play in theaters (including on Avatar and Legion screens) in 10 markets, which Romero anticipates will receive more than one million impressions.
Romero expects that Incarceron will be Fisher’s “breakout” book, a sentiment echoed by bookseller Sarah Todd of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa. “Fisher is a writer I’ve always admired and I’m confident that this novel is going to find her a wider audience,” she says. “I think a lot of kids have been anxious for fantasy that is not so derivative. They want something more imaginative, out there, and thought-provoking. Incarceron is all that. Not only is its timing right in terms of the market, but it has a brilliant cover and a great release date—after the flood of fall books and before all the big spring books.”
Todd also believes the novel’s dual protagonists add to its appeal. “This is easy to market to both boys and girls, which isn’t the case with a lot of fantasy,” she observes. Her store bought the Incarceron floor display and she reports that she is “absolutely” handselling the novel. At long last. “I read the ARC during my summer vacation, way back in July,” she says. “When you have to wait so many months to sell something like this, it’s kind of like you’ve been incubating your excitement. I’m very happy the book is finally here.”
Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. Dial, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-8037-3396-1