The paperback success of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto proves that it ain't over until the fat lady sings. When HarperCollins published Patchett's fourth novel, about an opera singer and party guests held hostage by terrorists, in May 2001, booksellers were smitten. "We loved the book when we first read it. We all hand-sold it," said Len Cowgill, adult buyer for McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich. Customers, however, were harder to sway. Though Bel Canto won the 2001 PEN/Faulkner award, hardcover sales were just over 30,000 copies.

Based on that figure, HarperCollins printed 30,000 copies of the paperback in April, 2002. But word-of-mouth and bookseller accolades finally took hold, and paperback sales have soared like a soprano in full voice. After 39 weeks on PW's paperback list, and last fall's announcements that the novel had won Britain's Orange Prize and was a NBCC finalist, there are now 700,000 copies in print. Sales are still on the upswing—six months after Patchett returned home from her tour, February 2003 was the book's strongest month yet.

Book clubs in particular are clamoring for the book. "There are one or two hot book club books every year—Memoirs of a Geisha was one and so was Girl with a Pearl Earring. This year everybody has invariably read Bel Canto," said Virginia Valentine, liaison to the 400 book clubs registered at the Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo. In January, Patchett and Wally Lamb were the first authors featured in HarperCollins's "Invite the Author" program, which allows book clubs to include authors in their meetings via telephone. Bel Canto was also recently selected for the 2003 "Read It Share It" city-wide reading program in Madison, Wis.

The paperback was also released into a different market than the one the hardcover faced in May 2001. Back then, the country was sliding into a recession, and the novel's focus on terrorists was too close to home after Washington, D.C. and New York City were attacked four months later. In April 2002, "the paperback publication was far enough away from September 11 not be threatening, but close enough to allow people to see terrorists afresh," said the Tattered Cover's Valentine. At Diane's Books of Greenwich, Conn., manager Katherine Longbotham noted that the hostage situation in a Russian theater in October 2002 stirred up further interest in the book.

The paperback reprint also provided a chance to revise the cover design. Manager and events coordinator Rose Katz of Black Oak Books in the San Francisco Bay Area felt that the paperback jacket did a better job of conveying Bel Canto's tone. "The paperback cover is very attractive and welcoming, while the hardback was very enigmatic," she said. Black Oak sold 114 hardcover copies of Bel Canto ("higher than the average hardback novel," noted Katz), and sold 678 copies of the paperback in about 10 months.

It still ain't over for Bel Canto. Patchett's agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM, reported that negotiations are underway with the Santa Fe Opera House to create an opera based on the book, and a film is in development. As for Patchett, she just sold her first book-length work of nonfiction, an account of her friendship with poet Lucy Grealy, the recently deceased author of Autobiography of a Face, to HarperCollins in February.