Most every summer, it seems, one "sleeper" book emerges as a blockbuster. I'm thinking, for example, of novels like The Lovely Bones, ruminations like Tuesdays with Morrie and, oh, yes, a little thriller called The Da Vinci Code. As we approach the midpoint of summer 2005, the it book of the season, if not the year, seems to have appeared. It is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, from Little, Brown. Bought last summer for a whopping $2 million from Collins McCormick agent Amy Williams, the book appeared amid a carefully calibrated advertising campaign on June 14 and immediately landed at #1 on the PW bestseller list. In less than a month, Little, Brown has gone back to press three times and has more than 800,000 copies of the book in print —with probably around half that number sold (70,000 were sold the first week). Never mind that the reviews were, at best, mixed—the Times's Janet Maslin called it "wearyingly long," among other things: The Historian is a bona fide hit. (It's interesting to note that The Traveler, another contender for the Da Vinci mantle, coming as it does from the same editor and publishing house, appeared two weeks later, on June 28—and while it is selling well and will likely land somewhere on the lists, it is surely not going to debut in the top spot. At press time, The Travelerwas #94 on Amazon, where The Historian was #4.)
So what catapulted The Historian, a novel about a contemporary woman who might or might not be a descendant of Dracula, to such heights? "Little, Brown just published very well," said one rival publisher, echoing others with an in-country expression for... well, for handling a book well. LB's rights department sold it in 28 countries, it committed (and delivered) a half a million marketing dollars and sent out 7,000 ARCs. The first reading on laydown day—attended by more than 200 people—was at the Borders in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, which not so coincidentally both Kostova and Warner honcho Larry Kirshbaum attended.
But of course, there have been these kinds of all-out efforts for hope-to-be-big books before—and they only sometimes work. In 2000, for example, Little, Brown's then editor-in-chief Sarah Crichton brilliantly marketed a potentially obscure book called The Tipping Pointby, among other things, conducting a pre-pub tour so that author Malcolm Gladwell could meet with such brainiacs as Michael Kinsley. Still, in 2001 Dutton published The Impressionist, which also sold in dozens of foreign markets; British author Hari Kunzru went on an extensive tour and the house ponied up for advertising. The book was no blockbuster.
Of course, The Historian could be working because, as one interested party put it, "it's just a particularly great book." (Yeah, maybe, but I have heard more than one reader say that the first 100 pages are very slow.) And maybe over time, such lukewarm word of mouth will slow sales. But meanwhile, the folks over at 1271 Sixth Avenue are being uncharacteristically quiet about their publishing bonanza; both Michael Pietsch and editor Regan Arthur are on vacation, and even the never-press-shy Larry Kirshbaum has not returned a call.
Maybe they don't want to spill the secrets of their success. Or more likely, they're no surer than anyone just what those secrets are. "You have to do everything right," says one veteran publisher. "And then you just hope for the fairy dust."