On the Lido deck, passengers in bikinis and swim trunks claim poolside chairs as the Carnival Pride powers down the western coast of Mexico on a late spring morning. Eight decks down, in a windowless auditorium known as the "Butterflies Lounge," rows of people, mostly women, listen eagerly to bestselling novelist Debbie Macomber talk about blankets and sweaters and number five knitting needles.
Hundreds of hands—some confident, others awkward but game—cast on stitches to start their projects. Christina Skye, another bestselling author, circulates, stopping to help some beginners. Kensington editorial director Kate Duffy is among the women struggling to learn the craft. Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes is there, too, traveling with her mother and sister. Most of the knitters, though, have no professional connection to books. They just buy a lot of them.
Welcome aboard the Authors at Sea cruise. This week 28 writers, 20 members of the book industry and 500 avid readers will dine, sing karaoke, play charades, compete in "Romance Book Jeopardy," haggle over the cost of Mexican silver and, yes, knit together. The price of a cruise ticket buys these readers a level of access to authors that could spoil them forever for the superficial encounter of a bookstore reading. Run by Levy Home Entertainment and supported by 11 publishers, it's a marketing opportunity dressed up as a vacation, intended to boost book sales by introducing (literally) readers to authors. Levy marketing v-p John Lindsay sums up the idea: "When you've had a chance to meet an author, you care about their books more."
But Does It Move Books?
This year's trip is a sequel to the first Authors at Sea event, which took place in October 2004. The cruise is part of Levy's larger strategy to strengthen sales of mass market paperbacks, which account for about a third of the company's business. Lindsay characterizes mass market as "not as strong right now as our other businesses." Mass market is doubly important, he adds, because the cheaper format can entice consumers to establish habits that lead to buying more expensive books. "We believe that we can add to the number of readers if we do the mass market well."
The cruise clearly leads to some sales. Several passengers say they bought books by all the featured authors (the majority of whom are romance writers) in anticipation of the cruise. During the cruise, the onboard store sells nearly 2,500 copies of the writers' books, which are supplied by Levy and prominently displayed in the front of the shop. And Levy says it distributed more than three million copies of the 80 titles bearing the "Authors at Sea" sticker (which contained coupons for $250 off the price of the cruise) between August and December 2005.
But does the cruise move books in significant numbers? And does it mean anything long-term for mass market and, by extension, for the book business in general? Or is it just an elaborate variation on the traditional author tour, in which publishers sell a few copies, but not enough to justify the expense?
"It's very hard to say quantifiably what the cruise itself did," notes Craig Swinwood, v-p, sales and marketing for Harlequin, which has sent several authors on the trip both times. "But when you look at the authors who were part of the promotion the first and the second years, the vast majority are performing better than they were before the cruise."
It's not just what happens during the one week on board, he says, but also the months of promotional displays at Levy accounts highlighting the Authors at Sea titles, as well as the Internet chatter among readers both before and after the trip. "People think of these authors as celebrities, so there's certainly a lot of buzz," Swinwood says.
He points to Harlequin authors Macomber, Skye and Carla Neggers as writers whose sales have all been rising, in part because of the Levy promotion.
Hayes says she thinks of the campaign as just one component—albeit a valuable one—of the publisher's larger marketing strategy. "For us, the authors we have chosen to go in that program are people we were quite focused on anyway," she says. "But it does seem to have quite a positive impact on these authors."
Similarly, St. Martin's credits the promotion with boosting sales for To the Limit, the Authors at Sea title by its writer Cindy Gerard.
Princess for a Week
Whatever the cruise's effect on book sales, there's no denying that Levy knows how to keep the participants happy. More than a third of the people who were on the 2004 cruise have returned for this one. And a quarter of the authors on this trip are second-timers.
The ship stops at Mazatlan, Puerta Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas. But for the Authors at Sea group, these destinations are an afterthought. It's all about the authors. Every writer-led activity draws a crowd—a big, enthusiastic crowd. Christina Skye explaining feng shui? We're there! Karen Rose teaching sign language? Count us in!
Even better are the informal encounters—in the bar, by the slot machines, at the sink in the ladies' room—that happen when people are confined to a ship together. "It humanizes the authors. Now it's like we know each other," says Barbara Dielen of South Milwaukee, as she chats with author Marjorie Liu on the Lido deck one late afternoon. They spend half an hour discussing other authors, trading facts and opinions the way boys talk about baseball stats. And Dielen teases Liu, whose books include a generous amount of sex and violence, "If I saw your author picture I would say you look too nice to write this stuff."
At dinner, the authors eat with a different group each night. "You can go home and say, 'We had dinner with them.' How cool is that?" says Beth Martinko of Maryland, who brought her daughter, a college student, on the cruise. The night before, romance author Victoria Alexander had dined, apparently with abundant charm, at Martinko's table. "Victoria's now one of my favorite people in the world," Martinko says. During dessert, the author stops by with a sheet of paper and asks everyone to write down their contact information. Tall, blonde and dressed up for dinner, Alexander is slightly glamorous, yet entirely approachable.
Later, Alexander confides the appeal of the trip: "You get to be treated like a princess for a week." Alexander, who was also on the first authors' cruise, says she never feels like a celebrity at home in Omaha. "It surprises me to be treated this way. I don't know if I could be treated this way all the time," she says. "But I'd like to try."
She is not the only author to talk about the intangible benefits. "I like the energy," says Skye, who was also on the first cruise. "So much of what we do is in a room, behind a computer, in isolation.
Brassy, Not Stuffy
On Saturday, the last full day of the trip, the group is back in the Butterflies Lounge, waiting for Macomber to lead her final knitting session. There's an end-of-summer-camp feeling, as e-mails and promises to keep in touch are exchanged and autograph collections are filled out. Speculation flows about when and where the next cruise will take place. Earlier in the week, rumors that Levy might choose Alaska had set off some grumbling—too cold, too expensive—but by now word is out that the destination has been discarded as a possibility. (Levy hasn't committed to organizing another cruise, but is considering it.)
Kensington's Duffy already has a plan to make use of the readers she met on the trip. "I've made contacts with people that I'm going to send bound galleys to, people who should be on my big-mouth list," she says.
Karen Yates of Chesterfield, Mich., says she's going home with a list of writers to try. She says she was not familiar with most of the authors on board before the trip because, "I personally do not read that much romance."
Overhearing, romance writer Cherry Adair interjects, "Honey, you must change your wicked ways."
"I'm going to read your book because it's full smut," Yates shoots back. Adair, with her red hair, South African accent and king-size personality, stood out on a ship full of extroverts. "She's outgoing and funny and kind of a little bit brassy," says Yates. For her, as for many of the readers, this trip has been a revelation. "We think of authors as living in their own world. You think they might be stuffy. But they haven't been that way at all."