Andrew Maraniss’ debut, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, is breaking records at Vanderbilt University Press. The Nashville-based publisher saw the title become a runaway bestseller during the holiday season and now, after becoming one of the press' s biggest sellers to date, has also earned the honor of becoming its first book to hit two New York Times bestseller lists: race and culture, and sports.
Strong initial orders led to Vanderbilt selling out its initial 7,000-copy run by the December 1 pub date. “Once that publication date hit, Amazon didn’t have books in stock for the month of December,” said Betsy Phillips, Vanderbilt’s sales and marketing manager. “That’s not something that has ever happened to Vanderbilt University Press. Going into Christmas with nothing in the warehouse was literally the worst feeling of my professional career.”
Typically, Vanderbilt’s bigger books start with an initial run of 3,000 copies, which lasts six to nine months before a reprint is considered, Phillips said. Other titles may only sell 7,000 copies overall.
“We came up with a pie-in-the-sky number for [Strong Inside] and they were gone, just out the door,” she said. “That’s when we realized this is huge. This book has performed so far beyond our expectations. We knew we had a big hit on our hands, but we were thinking big in the university press world.” They ordered a reprint of 5,000 copies during the first week of December, and are already planning a third reprint of 2,500.
To promote the book, the press "scraped together $10,000” for a marketing budget once Vanderbilt sensed the book could be a hit, Phillips said which it used to broaden the book's appeal beyond the south. (It only received one national review, in the Washington Post.)
Wallace, the book’s subject, was a member of Vanderbilt University’s basketball team in the late 1960s and was the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. “I was hoping people would see the broader significance of his story,” Phillips said.
Inspired by civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Wallace “viewed himself as being part of this national dialogue,” she said. Maraniss said that race relations and civil rights issues continue to inspire debate throughout the country and that the timing was just right for his book’s release.
“People are talking about race, looking for various ways to broach the subject, and this book allows readers to see the world through Perry Wallace's eyes,” he said. “He is such an astute observer of race in America that the book is allowing people who might not otherwise talk about race issues to come at the subject in a meaningful way.”
From the beginning, Maraniss was also willing to put in the work required to make the book a success. “I told myself, if I’m going to write this book, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure [Wallace’s] story is heard,” he said. “I heard over and over again how difficult this would be. I wanted to overcome those obstacles and prove people wrong, prove that this could be a successful book.”
Even before Strong Inside came out, Maraniss, a partner at the Nashville public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox, wrote a 36-page list of people he wanted to meet and share his book with – agents, booksellers, authors, librarians. “There’s that old cliché ‘it takes a village,’ and I feel like that’s the case with this book,” he said. “People were really generous with their advice, time and connections.”
He also decided to attend as many speaking engagements as possible – from kindergarten classes to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. “I said yes to everything,” he said, “and went wherever I was invited. Nashville was a great home base for this.”
Wallace, who is still alive, has joined Maraniss at many of these events, Phillips said. “He has just been really thoughtful about his experience and generously willing to make appearances with Andrew,” she said. “It makes people feel invested in the book and his life story.”