There may be no greater indication of how things have changed in corporate publishing than the results of an informal PW search for sleeper hits of the year from major publishers. We annually round up sleepers from indie publishers for a late summer feature, but we have not made a regular habit of asking the bigger houses for their under-the-radar surprises. After reaching out to 11 of the major divisions (and one of the mini-major houses) information on books that were published this year and unexpectedly broke through—our criterion was a title that had an announced first printing of no more than 20,000 copies and notably exceeded that figure in sales—we received a lackluster response, with only half of those contacted able to supply a title that fit the bill.

That there aren’t more sleepers in the big divisions at the big houses seems yet another indication of a seismic falloff in midlist authors, and midlist books, at the major publishers. With the large publishers focused on big-name authors or those with niche audiences, the chances of having a breakout hit are becoming smaller and smaller. In short, the big guys are not publishing as many books that are expected to do only modestly well.

Nonetheless, following are some of the titles that the major houses were happily surprised by in 2011.

Title: Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

Author: Andrew Ferguson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

First Announced Printing: 7,000

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 31,000

Why It Took Off: Ferguson, an editor for the Weekly Standard, tackles the college admissions process—with all of the bizarre, and costly, rituals it entails—from an inside perspective, as the father of a higher education–bound high schooler. The book, an S&S rep said, “struck a chord with parents” and was helped along by solid early reviews and features (in places like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) as well as the author’s tireless promotion. Overall, it seems, the media blitz paid off, as Ferguson made multiple appearances on FOX News, NPR, and elsewhere.

Title: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Author: David Eagleman

Publisher: Pantheon (Knopf Doubleday)

First Announced Printing: 15,000

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 75,000

Why It Took Off: Eagleman, a neuroscientist, did an old-fashioned tour—he hit 15 cities—to discuss his book on why, and how, our soft matter does some of the things it does. Also of help, a Knopf rep noted, was a profile in the New Yorker and important press hits on NPR’s Fresh Air, as well as an appearance on The Colbert Report.

Title: Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

Author: Dorothy Wickenden

Publisher: Scribner

First Announced Printing: 16,500

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 42,000

Why It Took Off: Wickenden is the executive editor of the New Yorker, and the book began as a piece in that magazine, about her grandmother and best friend, who headed west to Colorado at the turn of the 20th century to start a school. A Scribner rep said the book “aspired to reach the same readers as Jeannette Walls’s Half Broke Horses” (which Scribner also published), and that a “mix of very positive review coverage” coupled with Wickenden’s “tireless schedule of talks” helped it do just that.

Title: The Dressmaker of Khair Kania

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Publisher: Harper

First Announced Printing: 17,000

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 58,000

Why It Took Off: An interview with the author on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show was the early catalyst in getting journalist Lemmon’s book—it’s about a woman in Kabul who starts a local business after the Taliban has taken control of the city, and, against all odds, sees the venture thrive—on the radar of readers and other media outlets. A Harper rep said the topic of “women and Afghanistan” was timely and that “sales soared” after the Rehm hit. A full-page, four-star review in People the week of the Rehm appearance also helped. The rep added that the author, after the Arab spring, was able to do a number of op-eds in various papers about “women’s emerging roles in Arab countries.”

Title: SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper

Authors: Howard Wasdin and Stephen Templin

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

First Announced Printing: 18,000

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 425,000

Why It Took Off: Talk about timing. Wasdin, a former Navy SEAL, was working on his memoir with Templin when the team he had been a part of emerged as the one responsible for killing Osama bin Laden. When news about bin Laden’s death broke, SMP moved quickly; a rep said the imprint “booked an enormous amount of press for the author,” who suddenly became an unlikely authority on the biggest story of the spring and, arguably, the year.

Title: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (paperback edition)

Author: Edmund de Waal

Publisher: Picador (after Farrar, Straus and Giroux published the hardcover in 2010)

First Announced Printing: 10,000

Current Sales* (combined paperback print and digital): 38,700

Why It Took Off: De Waal, a British ceramicist whose work is included in the permanent collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, published his story about hunting down the provenance of a collection of Japanese wood carvings he’d inherited (uncovering quite a bit about his family tree in the process), to great success in the U.K. But the book, FSG said, did not take off initially in hardcover in the U.S. As a rep at the imprint explained, it had “an impossible time getting reviews.” When Picador was preparing the paperback, which was released on August 2, the imprint tapped into the growing audience for the book. De Waal did a library and museum tour—at the New York Public Library a crowd of 500 showed up to hear him speak—and Picador said the paperback is now in its seventh printing, with digital sales having “more than doubled in the four months since publication.”

Title: What Alice Forgot

Author: Liane Moriarty

Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam

First Announced Printing: 18,837

Current Sales* (combined print and digital): 76,200

Why It Took Off: “A smart beach read” that garnered a hefty amount of press, and the right press, is what helped this novel get off the ground, according to a rep from Putnam. It was, the rep said, strong coverage from women’s magazines like O, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal, coupled with placement in a number of “annual summer reading roundups” that put the book, about an amnesiac coping with the fissures in her marriage and family (the protagonist has lost memories from a decade of her life), in front of the right audience.

*Sales are through the end of November.