Today on Twitter, Robin Sloan highlighted a recent article by Laura Miller on the tremendous rise of the Hunger Games series of books, calling the article “the best media writing of 2012.” After reading it myself, I’d have to agree.
Personal recommendations still hold formidable power:
…it’s essential to grasp the central, maddening paradox that confronts all book marketers, from venerable New York publishing houses to tiny independent presses: The only thing that reliably sells books is word of mouth, preferably a personal recommendation from a trusted friend.
On what happens inside publishing houses, and the surge of enthusiasm that’s hard to fake:
Scholastic employees began eagerly passing the manuscript around the office. It was the first stirring of what would become a tidal wave of word of mouth. “When you have the kind of book,” said Rachel Coun, executive director of marketing, “where assistants from other departments, even though it’s not their job, come asking for the galleys because they’ve heard it’s really great, you know you have something.”
Writing for television gave Suzanne Collins a knack for cliffhangers:
Before she turned to books, Collins, who has a background in theater, wrote children’s television shows for Nickelodeon. “I think that writing for episodic television, knowing that you have to have that rising and falling tension, and end that episode at a particular place, has served her very well,” said her agent, Rosemary Stimola.
Sometimes, plainness is the best signifier of excellence:
In January, the book’s marketing team decided to send out photocopies of the manuscript instead of the nicely bound proofs that are typically submitted to industry professionals before the finished version of a book comes off the presses…Just as significant as the timing, a choice like this is part of an informal semaphore system between publishers and the all-important first readers of any new children’s book. A Xeroxed, plastic-comb-bound manuscript conveys both urgency and the conviction that here’s a title that doesn’t need attractive packaging to make an impression.
Stars are still made on semi-private channels:
Every children’s bookseller and librarian I contacted for this article belongs to at least one listserv where they constantly evaluate new books with their peers.
The ability to read your readers may be the greatest skill of all:
A school librarian like Alli Decker, head librarian at St. Mark’s School in San Rafael, Calif., may not have Oprah’s reach, but she’s got a lot more depth when it comes to putting a book in the hands of one of her students. “In the best-case scenario,” she explained, “I know them from first grade, when they start to read independently, on up. I know who I can challenge and who I can’t. I know who is willing to try something new and who isn’t.”
Cross-reference with this passage from an interview between Tom Roberge and Dustin Kurtz, who until recently worked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson in New York; he’s now at Melville House Books. (Line breaks mine).
Nobody comes in looking for a solidly mediocre book. The first step with any customer is asking them what they’ve enjoyed recently. “Good” is an impossibly relative term. But my general tactic is, if customers are looking for one good book, give them at least three.
Give them a book quite similar to what they said they enjoyed reading. Sometimes this will be something more obscure by the same author, or just something newer.
Second, give them something just slightly different, but still in that general strike zone.
And lastly, give them the real curveball, something that’ll whip across the plate at an angle so sharp they can’t clock it correctly. Give them something Albanian. Give them someone long dead. Give them something strange staple-bound and hard to get and perfect for them in ways you could never have known without poring over their browser history.
Most people will only buy the first two (it is very hard for them to decide to put all three back). But those readers who walk out of the place with that third book, the ones whiplashed by the spin on that last strange bit of translation, are getting something special.
What’s more, they feel like they’re getting something special. They feel like they’re engaged, like they’re unique, and hell, in most cases they’re right.
“Give them something strange [and] staple-bound and hard to get and perfect for them in ways you could never have known without poring over their browser history”—that level of attention, of understanding between two people, is electric when it happens. What I loved about Laura Miller’s article is that in reading it, I glimpsed what that kind of electricity might look like at scale.