Local independents find helpful newspaper allies in promoting regional authors

Read all about it: the latest twist in the book club explosion is that newspapers with big circulations and "free" publicity are getting in on the act.

Roberta Tichner, owner of Annie Bloom's Books in Portland and president of the Oregon Independent Booksellers Association, sold 165 copies of Robert Clark's In the Deep Midwinter (Picador USA) within two weeks after the Oregonian launched the regional author as its first book club selection. "That's our bestselling title in 20 years of business," Tichner told PW.

The Oregonian Book Club works exclusively with regional independents, who offer a 25% discount on the month's selected title. It's an effective partnership, but it's not the first. Both the Sacramento Bee and the Contra Costa Times, in California, started similar programs within two weeks of one another in the spring of 1997.

Not surprisingly, publishers are watching closely. Lynn Carey, the feature writer who initiated the idea at the Contra Costa Times (which reaches 700,000 readers and has more than 35 participating bookstores offering the featured books at discounts), noted that she has been contacted by a "range of editors." Ellen Heltzel, the Oregonian's book editor, got a call from Random House soon after starting the Oregonian's club last month. (The Oregonian is the largest paper in the Northwest, with a circulation of 350,000 daily and 450,000 on Sundays.)

Each of the newspaper editors has designed their club differently, but they share a common strategy. Every month an editor or editorial board chooses a book for its readers. Then the newspaper contacts local bookstores to stock up on the title. The paper runs a feature on the author and the title, simultaneously coordinating publicity in local stores. Readers meet and discuss the book at a gathering during the month, sometimes in restaurants, sometimes at the paper's headquarters. At the end of the month, edited transcripts of the club's discussion are published in the paper's book section. There are online chat rooms throughout the month, and often author appearances are organized, both online and in person.

The response has been immediate and enthusiastic. According to Jennifer Bojorquez, feature writer and creator of the Sacramento Bee's club, it's the love of sharing literature with people from diverse ethnic groups and backgrounds that has drawn the overwhelming response. "Thousands of readers participate," she told PW. (The 30% discount offered by local bookstores, most recently for Alice McDermott's Charming Billy [Delta], a National Book Award winner, helps heighten the excitement.)

"We work with everyone from B&N to the college bookstores to the independents," said Bojorquez. "Every couple days we list all the participating stores of our area in the paper." Featured authors get loads of free press, and then word-of-mouth publicity kicks in. Club application forms are featured in the Sacramento Bee and are distributed by the bookstores. Sales have increased phenomenally. The Bee began by featuring only books by local and regional writers, such as Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (Broadway Books) and Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (HarperCollins), but the club is now opening up to authors from across the country, such as Alice McDermott.

At the end of the month, McDermott will give a reading in Sacramento. The Bee's audience for such events quickly outgrew the 250 seating capacity at the newspaper's headquarters. Most readings are now held at the Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento, drawing audiences of up to 600. With a circulation of 300,000, the word gets around fast.

In addition to online chat rooms and articles, the Oregonian offers a phone line that readers can call to get a synopsis of the book. "Eight hundred people called in the first week," said Oregonian book critic Jeff Baker. To create the monthly small book groups, he and Heltzel hand-pick eight to 10 readers they believe are compatible with the book's material. For Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices (Doubleday), they chose three Middle Eastern immigrants and a reader who had traveled extensively with the diplomatic corps. "We get them through our own contacts as well as through a call for letters from interested newspaper readers," Heltzel explained.

Editors at all three papers expressed a committed effort to finding new writers and not featuring previously recognized bestsellers. Or, as Carey at the Contra Costa Times said, "No bestsellers unless we make it one." Carey told PW that HarperCollins has credited the surge in book clubs for helping to do just that with books such as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. (The title has just began its second year ensconced on PW's trade paperback list, with more than two million copies in print.)

"We're looking for books below the radar line," said the Oregonian's Heltzel. "We want to bring our regional authors home, and our readers to new books." Carey reported that the Contra Costa Times receives calls every week from newspaper editors around the country, most recently as far away as White Plains, N.Y., who are looking for models to form their own local book clubs. With the trend growing, the featured authors for these emerging clubs won't stay below the radar for long.