Even though he admits to occasionally having to plow through novels that don't appeal to him, Bill Cusumano, the adult book buyer for Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., relishes reading future releases from the major houses long before many of his bookseller colleagues and even the pre-pub trade media. "I got a copy of The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle back when the title page read only Edgar Sawtelle," he says. "I was one of the first outside of HarperCollins to read it."
Cusumano is what many in the industry call a Big Mouth bookseller. A Big Mouth is one who's known to talk up whatever he or she is reading or has read to other booksellers, store customers, and just about anyone else who will listen. Savvy publishers know such booksellers can make—or break—a book, and thus actively court them, providing them with bound manuscripts and early galleys as far as a year in advance of the book's pub date, though six to eight months before release is the norm.
Big Mouths who receive these materials are only asked by publishers to provide feedback quickly and candidly, so their comments can be used to better position the book and market it to other booksellers. "It's like building a campfire," declares Ruth Liebmann, Random's director of retail field marketing and merchandising. "Great kindling is essential, and that's what early reads provide."
"We use Big Mouth feedback as leverage, to get more booksellers on board," Algonquin marketing director Craig Popelars says, recalling that the conversations among booksellers about one of the most spectacular indie-bookseller-generated bestsellers in recent history, Water for Elephants, began after Algonquin initially sent out early galleys to only 15 to 20 carefully selected booksellers around six months before the book's May 2006 pub date. As the excitement built after Winter Institute that year, galleys were sent to more and more booksellers in subsequent waves of mailings throughout the spring, culminating with 2,000 finished copies being handed out to booksellers at BEA.
It's a tactic that's also worked well for Random House, which gave bound manuscripts of this summer's hit, The Passage, to just a few booksellers last August, and sent author Justin Cronin to Winter Institute this past February to build on the excitement that was already percolating long before any galleys had been printed. The pre-pub buzz peaked at BEA, when PW declared it to be the most talked-about book of the show.
And in March, manuscripts of Revolution, an October release from Delacorte Books for Young Readers, were sent to approximately 25 key booksellers. Galleys that included those booksellers' endorsements subsequently were sent to several hundred booksellers in May, so, Liebmann explains, there would be a "palpable buzz going into BEA." Random's strategy was successful: 1,500 ARCs of Revolution were snapped up by eager booksellers at BEA, and the YA release was also named by PW one of the most buzzed-about books of the show.
Publishers don't all employ the same strategy when it comes to Big Mouths. While Candlewick sends a "Chirp" box containing galleys and other materials to 300 independent booksellers, Scholastic chooses one release each season it wants to call attention to early on and sends out a limited quantity of bound manuscripts to select booksellers. Last year, the unanimous choice of Scholastic's marketing team and sales reps was Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Fifty bound manuscripts were sent to key booksellers, with a cover letter written by Stiefvater introducing herself and talking up her work. Not only did Stiefvater meet with Scholastic's marketing team and all its sales reps at the sales conference, but she also met with key buyers. By the time Shiver was published in August 2009, 3,500 ARCs had been mailed or given out to booksellers and librarians at the trade shows. The pre-pub buzz helped get the title on the New York Times bestsellers list.
According to publishers, Big Mouths aren't always the store owner or buyer. One of Algonquin's "inner circle" of Big Mouths manages the cafe at Denver's Tattered Cover. Every Big Mouth, however, is an opinionated frontline bookseller who talks about what he or she reads in such a way as to successfully persuade others—first, his or her colleagues in the industry, and subsequently, his or her customers—to read that book. "Anyone can put a damn book on the shelf," Popelars insists. "Not everyone can put it into a customer's hands. That's where the magic happens."
The most effective Big Mouths, says Wendy Sheanin, marketing director for Simon & Schuster's adult book group, are the ones who both "pay attention" and to whom "other booksellers pay attention." They are also, publishers agree, the ones who mix it up with other booksellers at the regionals and at Winter Institute, thus jump-starting the buzz simultaneously in different parts of the country for next season's or even the following season's releases.
"A lot of special attention is paid to reaching out early regionally," says Carl Lennertz, v-p of retail marketing for HarperCollins, who emphasizes the essential role sales reps play in creating buzz, by handing out bound manuscripts or early galleys to key booksellers who the reps know "will read it and love it." Carla Gray, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt director of adult marketing, realized What Is Left the Daughter: A Novel would be a hand-selling hit while at Winter Institute, when she talked up the July release to groups of booksellers during the sales rep "book speed-dating" event. "One or two booksellers at each table" mentioned having already heard about it from either their reps or the 20 booksellers who'd received manuscripts, she notes.
Referring to Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book Co. in suburban Philadelphia, who is universally regarded by publishers as a key Big Mouth, Popelars says, "If Joe gets excited about a book, it'll cascade all the way through the NAIBA community and beyond. He's a damn gossip hound when it comes to good writing. And when he speaks, other booksellers are going to say, ‘Let's take a look at this.' Cusumano's the same way."
But, Liebmann argues, it doesn't matter as much anymore that a bookseller be "one of the usual suspects" in terms of being regarded as a Big Mouth within the industry: any bookseller with access to the Internet has the potential to create a buzz early on for a book. "A book can catch fire very quickly, which makes this a very exciting time for us," Liebmann says, describing the process of creating buzz as having become "highly inclusive" now that more and more booksellers are both interacting with literary bloggers and using social media to share information with each other and with their customers. "An increasing number of booksellers have increasing influence far beyond the traditional borders of their customer base," Liebmann says, explaining that a store's online presence has become a decisive factor in creating buzz, specifically a store with personnel who regularly blog and twitter about what they and other staff members are reading.
Sheanin can attest to the viral nature of book buzz. The excitement among both reps and booksellers for Hundred Foot Journey erupted so suddenly and unexpectedly in March that S&S had to xerox 50 extra galleys to meet immediate bookseller demand for the July release, a debut novel by Richard Morais that's an IndieBound pick nominated by Roberta Rubin, the owner of the Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., whom Sheanin credits with spearheading the early buzz among booksellers.
While Random House described its Big Mouth list as constantly fluctuating in number as the publisher courts "new readers," there are approximately 450 booksellers on Algonquin's list, 100 names on S&S's adult books list, and 80 names on HMH's list, a mixture, Gray explains, of older, established Big Mouths and younger, emerging Big Mouths, such as Harvard Book Store head buyer Megan Sullivan, who's been blogging for five years about new and upcoming releases on her literary blog, Bookdwarf.com.
But not all Big Mouths receive early copies of all releases, the marketing directors PW spoke to emphasize. They describe it as a painstakingly careful process, what Popelars calls "playing matchmaker with the booksellers." Each Big Mouth's literary tastes are taken into account when compiling lists specifically for each manuscript or early galley—comparable, both Sheanin and Lennertz point out, to how booksellers take into account a specific customer's reading preferences when hand-selling books. "My colleagues and I have worked too hard to build up a trust that what we send has been hand-picked," Lennertz explains.
Even in an age where companies are increasingly resorting to high-tech tools like apps and trailers to entice consumers into buying their wares, publishers insist that, in the book world, a book's ultimate success still comes down to creating word-of-mouth buzz among book lovers. "It takes time and it's a long-term investment, but it has the biggest payoffs," Popelars says. "There's nothing like that old-school marketing. You can't put a price tag on it."
Spotlight on Indie Bestsellers List
1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, Knopf
2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Amy Einhorn/Putnam Books
3. The Passage by Justin Cronin, Ballantine
4. Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst, Random House
5. The Overton Window by Glenn Beck, Threshold Editions
1. Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, Ecco
2. Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern, It Books
3. The Big Short by Michael Lewis, Norton
4. War by Sebastian Junger, Twelve
5. The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking
(Sales for week ending June 20)