Every few years a book comes along that seems destined for bestsellerdom. But even if the author is Dan Brown, it can take as much careful plotting on the part of the publisher for it to hit the list as it does for the writer to craft a page-turner. This summer's “it” book, the nearly 800-page novel The Passage (Ballantine, June 8), is the first in a vampire trilogy and the first commercial project from 47-year-old Justin Cronin, a self-described “suburban dad from Texas” who writes in his garage. He's also better known for literary works like his debut novel, Mary and O'Neil, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award.
The Passage created a buzz in the industry two summers ago with a $5.5 million three-book and movie sale. Ballantine placed the winning bid of $3.75 million for the trilogy, and a few weeks later, Fox 2000 and Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions bought film rights for $1.75 million. “Everybody should have a month like that where what you do is appreciated,” Cronin said in an interview at ABA Winter Institute in San Jose in early February. Now he no longer has to write in the garage, he quipped. He writes above it.
The Passage's pub date was pushed back from summer 2009 either to build sales momentum—or to give the author more time to write. Cronin says that he was fine with the original date for his story about a girl who saves the world from a virus. The book began as a game. While he ran alongside his then nine-year-old daughter, Iris, on her bicycle, the two made up characters and situations, much like a creative writing exercise, but one aimed only at amusing each other. “I had zero expectations,” says Cronin. Another impulse behind the book was the war in Iraq. “We'd been in the war for a long time, and it troubled me,” says Cronin. “I was worried as hell as a person and a parent. That was the dark impulse.”
The additional time enabled Ballantine to garner blurbs. “It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears,” wrote Stephen King. Influential Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley notes, “Every now and then a book comes along that just has 'it.' You know it when you read it. The Passage is just such a book: It's World War Z meets The Stand—with a little Road Warrior thrown in. Who could resist that?”
To foster conversation among frontline booksellers especially, Ballantine printed a round of ARCs covered with quotes from field reps and others in marketing and sales. Most are direct, like this one from Valerie Walley, divisional director of field sales for the South and West: “Trust me—just read this.” Since then, The Passage has gone back to press for a fourth ARC printing, which will bring the total in-print figure just for galleys, manuscripts, and samplers to 10,000, according to Kristin Fassler, deputy director of marketing at Random House Publishing Group. The announced first printing is 250,000 copies.
Ballantine is using its mid-six-figure marketing budget to do a 17-city author tour as well as an iPhone app and an online game to be distributed to more than 100 gaming portals. “Our advertising strategy is modeled after a movie campaign, with phone kiosks and billboards in major markets and banner ads on highly trafficked entertainment Web sites,” says Fassler. Earlier this year, Ballantine launched the first of two Web sites, EnterthePassage.com for booksellers and librarians. A teaser site for consumers—a first for Ballantine—will go live in April with trailers, maps, and downloadable give-aways. Cronin is actively participating in a Twitter campaign and providing content and interviews customized for online retailers.
Nor has Ballantine overlooked the convention circuit. Galleys at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Boston got booksellers and librarians talking and tweeting about The Passage. Brendan Duffy called it “incredibly fun/terrifying. Can't remember the last time I read 920 pages (for fun) in two days.” Another ALA attendee, who couldn't get a copy, tweeted, “Anyone have a galley they'd like to pass onto me? I'll buy you a drink! Or lunch.” A few weeks later Cronin signed at the Winter Institute, and he will do a major event at BEA and off site. Badge holders will get a collectible card with a code for unlocking a Web site with posters and other retail downloadables.
Cronin continues to work on the other two volumes, due out in 2012 and 2014, and has learned a few skills not typically on a suburban dad's to-do list, such as how to vulcanize rubber. Says Cronin, “I knew by the time I finished this I would be a different person—and a different kind of writer.”