If you’re an independent publisher in want of a bestseller, you need 1) an extraordinary book that everyone else in your territory has overlooked or passed on, 2) a well-respected advocate, and 3) a willingness to have lunch at the Union Square Cafe twice a week for six months.
When Europa published The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery in September 2008, we had #1 and #2. When we published My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, we had James Wood, who wrote a piece in the New Yorker (“Women on the Verge”) about Ferrante’s fiction. The lunch part emerged with the third title in Ferrante’s series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. These conditions are particularly useful if you don’t have a publicist or an advertising budget.
Publishing an author such as Jane Gardam who is revered by critics and booksellers and has devoted fans is easy, because the books are of such quality and the author is so cooperative. Publishing an author you’ve never met and whose previous work has performed below expectations in the U.S. is a challenge.
The first of the Ferrante novels in the trilogy came out in the U.S. in September 2012 and attracted little attention. There were a couple of brief reviews that dribbled in between Labor Day and Christmas, but those who read them apparently weren’t swayed to buy the book.
Important encouragement came from the New Yorker editors Henry Finder, Leo Carey, and, as noted, James Wood—who requested, over the course of several months, copies of every novel Ferrante had written. On the assumption that my wishful thinking was correct, I sent them by messenger.
For Hedgehog, the advocates were Michael Dirda, Diane Rehm, and Time magazine. Dirda wrote an early review that was so thoughtful and persuasive it made me want to reread the novel. The Paris bureau of Time bought my suggestion for an article exploring the unhappy history of French bestsellers in the U.S. and the possibility that Hedgehog might be the exception. The article ran a month before publication—a full page. I got it to everyone in the publishing world who could sit up straight. Our sell-in with bookstores doubled.
Initially the Diane Rehm producers wanted to interview Barbery, but she was living in Japan and unavailable. Although disappointed, they decided to have a discussion among local Washington, D.C., worthies, including the talented Mr. Dirda.
I can remember my interns listening to the program while monitoring the Amazon sales ranking, astonished at how quickly and how high our book was climbing over the course of an hour. Within a week, the book was on the New York Times’ extended bestseller list, but barely. By Christmas, it was on the printed list, and our reprints couldn’t keep up with demand.
The Ferrante rise was slower, almost sedate. After the five-page review by Wood in the New Yorker in January 2013, My Brilliant Friend began a sales ascent with a modest trajectory. And, just as important, Ferrante’s backlist was revivified: Wood included the entire trilogy in his comprehensive review, as well as especially thoughtful praise for Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. He was convincing. Wood is to reviewing books as Claude Monet is to haystacks.
With Ferrante’s second novel in the series, The Story of a New Name, which appeared in September 2013, the reviews were favorable and prompt, respectful rather than enthusiastic. At first I was dispirited—until I read the manuscript for the third entry in the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which was published in September of this year.
Something was percolating. The principal characters were now adult women, the same age as the natural readers for the novels. Even before I began to meet with book review editors last spring, they were contacting me with requests to interview the author. Having galleys six months in advance of publication was critical, and the unsolicited interest from major newspapers and magazines was, in itself, a publicity campaign—albeit one without an author willing to tour or a budget to spend.
And then there were the frequent requests for information about Ferrante and for advance copies of the third novel in the series from women who buy literary fiction and belong to book groups. They were, and are, Ferrante’s prime audience: the people who could, and did, become a word-of-mouth critical mass—the engine that, moving in tandem with the Times, the New Yorker, Vogue, Harper’s, O, and Entertainment Weekly, could put the novel on readers’ radars, and move it up in the lists (Those Who Leave is now #16 in the New York Times and #9 in the L.A. Times), as well as boosting sales of the author’s backlist titles. The third time, I thought, could be magic. And it was.
Kent Carroll is the publisher of Europa Editions.