The reigning wisdom in book publishing is that an author’s marketing budget will match his or her advance. When publication rolls around, authors with books that sold for big money—which, at the Big Five these days, means high six figures and up—will see the publicity and marketing machine go to work. Authors with smaller advances... well, they have to hope for the best. There are, of course, exceptions. Christopher Scotton, whose debut novel is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing, is one such exception. His book, which was bought for a mere five figures and will be released on Jan. 6, 2015, has turned into one of the imprint’s biggest titles on its fall list, thanks to a torrent of in-house support.
In early 2013, Deb Futter acquired The Secret Wisdom of the Earth from agent Stephanie Cabot at the Gernert Agency. Futter loved the book—a coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Appalachia—but knew from the start that it would be “hard to publish.” Because it was a debut novel that had not been acquired for more than $500,000, Futter felt it “didn’t have a lot going for it, other than the fact that I loved it.” As a veteran editor, she recognized the hurdles it would face in the marketplace.
There were other issues, too. Scotton was a former technology executive who had been working on the book on and off for about a decade; he had no discernible platform. Futter noted that, at age 53, he was not the kind of debut novelist—read: young—that the industry tends to champion.
The book, lovingly dubbed SWOTE by Hachette employees, was set for a 25,000-copy print run. Futter was simply hoping for the best once publication rolled around. Things changed, however, after Hachette’s annual sales conference in March.
Before the sales meeting, SWOTE had already drawn a few raves from GCP staffers, including marketing director Brian McLendon. At the conference, however, the response was undeniable: the novel was so popular among the company’s sales reps that many felt the need to stand up, unprompted, and express their adoration for it.
For Futter, the experience was unique. “In more than 32 years in publishing I have never had the experience that, at a sales conference, reps would give testimonials to a book.... Of course I have had people say, ‘Yeah, I love this book.’ This was beyond that; it was like [witnessing] a kind of worship for a book.”
The intense reaction from the sales reps was followed by another first for Futter (and many others at GCP): Chris Murphy, senior v-p of retail sales, sent out an email praising the novel and urging everyone in his group to read it. Murphy claimed the book was so good that he felt the company had “something that can be big... really, really big.”
Murphy’s email, coupled with what happened at the sales conference, spurred GCP to increase the novel’s first printing to 100,000 copies and bring its marketing budget to six figures.
Since it had enough lead time, the GCP team decided to focus on a “slow burn” strategy that would get the book into the hands of important early readers—most notably booksellers—and then, in an attempt to sustain excitement, put Scotton on a heavy touring schedule. This approach resulted in a targeted galley push at BookExpo America (in May 2014), where GCP gave away a limited-edition ARC featuring a letter from president and publisher Jamie Raab. Since BEA, Scotton has been busy, attending the fall conferences of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA), New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), and Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Alliance (MPIBA); an ALA/AAP breakfast; six pre-sell bookseller dinners; and the Hachette Book Club brunch in New York City, attended by 150 consumers.
With publication still months away, McLendon said it’s hard to tell what’s working. Complicating matters is the fact that GCP can’t look to preorder numbers for the book on Amazon. (Thanks to the continuing stalemate between GCP parent company Hachette and Amazon over sales terms, a number of GCP titles are still unavailable for preorder.) Nonetheless, McLendon and others at GCP are hopeful that their efforts are working. They also feel excited to be part of something outside the norm.
There is, of course, the lingering question of why this particular book is getting so much love. Why would GCP put so much behind this book and not, say, another title acquired by an editor who had fallen in love with it? “There is a baseline of what we do for every one of our books,” McLendon said. “Even smaller midlist books get their own publicists.... We can support a book and love it, but when this happens it means people who read a lot are falling in love with something. It’s organic.”
Futter explained it another way: “It’s sort of about giving each book its due. This book suddenly seemed like it had more due to it because it showed tremendous appeal—it suddenly seemed like it had a very big audience.”