What do booksellers want? This winter, they want Jennifer Haigh reading in their stores. Due to bookseller demand, the tour for her new novel, Baker Towers, has grown from seven cities to close to 40, and will have Massachusetts resident Haigh criss-crossing the country from January through April.
Haigh's debut novel, Mrs. Kimble (Morrow, 2003; HarperPerennial, Jan. 2004), was no slouch. It was the #1 Book Sense pick for March/April 2003 and was included in the Borders Original Voices program. Nielsen BookScan, which is generally considered to represent approximately 70% of books sold, shows sales to date of 18,000 hardcovers and 30,000 paperbacks. (Morrow reports sales of 50,000 hardcovers and 60,000 paperbacks.) The title went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award, and most critics were positive.
But with her follow-up, Baker Towers (Morrow, on sale Jan. 4; unabridged audio CD from HarperAudio), Haigh appears poised for a bigger breakout. Word of mouth about the book has traveled fast among booksellers, helped by Haigh's appearances at BEA, NCIBA, NEBA and SEBA, which prompted a return to press for the advance reader's edition, bringing the total in print to 10,000 copies. The hardcover, which will be the #1 Book Sense pick for January and Anna Quindlen's judge's pick for the Book-of-the-Month Club in March, has an announced first print of 100,000 copies.
While Mrs. Kimble had an intriguing premise—it explored the lives of three women who had married the same man—Baker Towers has a wider scope and richer historical setting. It recounts events in the lives of five siblings in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in the years after World War II. A starred review in Kirkus compared Haigh to Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, while PW's review noted, "Haigh's prose never soars, but she writes convincingly of family and small-town relations, as well as the intractable frustrations of American poverty." There's also some feature potential in Haigh's own story: both of her grandfathers were coal miners, and the 36-year-old is a former Fulbright scholar and graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop who's worked as an editor at Self magazine.
Barnes & Noble sees Baker Towers as a book that can be a bestseller, according to v-p of merchandising Bob Wietrak, and will feature it in its on-line reading group in March. Borders is enthusiastic as well, in light of its strong sales of Mrs. Kimble.
But it's independent booksellers who have offered the groundswell of support that's likely to lift the novel above the crowd. Tim Huggins, owner of Newtonville Books in Newton, Mass., said, "I thought Mrs. Kimble was one of the most accomplished first novels I'd ever read, and with Baker Towers, it feels like she has actually written a better book." Huggins plans to order between 150 and 200 copies of Baker Towers and has made it the January selection for his signed first editions club, which includes about 50 customers.
Of Haigh's debut, Huggins said, "Mrs. Kimble was one of those books that had a lot of good things happening for it at once. The staff loved it, it had good reviews, good marketing and advertising—and when you have all of those things it feels easy to sell a lot of books." The paperback edition, published last January, has remained on the store's bestseller list and has now shifted into the book club market, which Huggins estimated should move another 50 to 100 copies at his store.
At Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., which will host Haigh in early February, owner Valerie Koehler reported that almost every one of the store's 30 clubs had read the book. Five clubs have already scheduled Baker Towers for January, making it the rare hardcover book club selection. Koehler credited the success of Mrs. Kimble to Haigh's ability to depict the changing options for American women over several decades. "It's not chick lit, but it speaks to women of a certain age, like Anne Tyler's work does," she said.
Another Haigh fan is Wendy Sheanin, events manager at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, where 91 copies of Mrs. Kimble have sold in paperback. She's invited Haigh to read at the store on January 19, and to be a guest on Writer's VoiceRadio, a radio program on local NPR affiliate KALW that Sheanin helps produce. Sheanin recalled that reading Mrs. Kimble, with its short chapters, "was like eating Ritz Bits—you just keep going." Sheanin did find one fault with Haigh, however, saying of the up-and-coming novelist, "She's never going to write fast enough for me."