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How To Sell A Book? Good Old Word Of Mouth

If you think autumn is just about colorful leaves and chillier weather, then you're probably not in the book industry.  Fall is the season when publishers begin to roll out their "big books" -- the titles they hope people will still be buying during the all-important holiday season.  With many writers vying for attention, it's important to build buzz about a book that can be heard above the fray.

Emma Donoghue's novel Room -- which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize -- is one example of a book with serious buzz.  It was published in the U.K. in early August (it's already on the best-seller lists there) and it will be released in the U.S. on Monday.

When it comes to selling books, Heather Fain, marketing director for the publisher Little, Brown and Co., said there is one surefire weapon -- and it's not brand new or high-tech.

"In a lot ways, the greatest marketing tool we have in publishing -- and probably will never change -- is word of mouth," Fain said.

That's not to say any publishing house expects the word to spread all by itself. Someone has to get the buzz started -- and that's usually the person who reads the book first. In the case of Room, that was Little Brown executive editor Judy Clain.

"I read it almost in one sitting. I was completely overwhelmed by it," Clain said. "When I got to the end of it, I was more worried that people wouldn't love it as much as I did because I knew that it was a difficult book."

Room tells the story of a woman -- being held captive by a man who kidnapped and raped her -- and her son, who is the child of her captor.  The child narrates the story, which begins in the only world he has ever known -- a backyard shed that is their prison.  Clain was convinced that Little Brown should buy the book, but first she had to pitch it to her colleagues at an editorial meeting.

"A lot of people in the room were skeptical," she said. "Then, what started to happen -- which I think has pretty much never happened to me before -- is that one by one, everybody who read the book, people started to come by absolutely sort of evangelical about the book."

Getting everyone within the company talking about the book is the first step in building the buzz.  The next step is spreading that excitement to the outside world.  So to market Room, Little Brown knew the best way to overcome any discomfort with the concept was to get people to read the whole book. Fain, the marketing director, said the publisher sent out some 6,000 advance copies of the novel -- for some smaller novels, that's the number of books that get printed to go out into the marketplace total.

"We really, really have tried to make sure that every bookseller, librarian, blogger, reviewer -- anyone who might possibly be interested in this book and interested in talking about it, has a copy already," Fain said.

The next step was BookExpo, the annual industry convention, when booksellers from all over the country converge on New York, and publishers compete to win their attention.  They woo booksellers with parties and events where authors turn out to mix and mingle.  Sara Nelson, book editor at Oprah's O magazine, said winning over booksellers is crucial.

"Even though they may be a tiny bookstore and they may only buy 10 copies of the book they've just heard discussed lovingly by the publisher -- they talk to each other about it, and they get a galley and they lend the galley out and so on," Nelson said. "That's sort of where it starts."

At an event hosted by Little Brown, Room's author, Emma Donoghue, spoke to a small crowd of booksellers and members of the media. Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, a San Francisco-based book store, had already read her advance copy of the novel -- and said she had initial reservations.

"At first when I heard it was from the point of view of a 5-year-old boy, I thought, 'Uh, I don't know,' " Petrocelli said. "But Emma Donoghue is so brilliant at the way she gets into the voice of this child and takes us into the room."

A lot of people at the convention were talking about the book, Petrocelli said. "People are curious about it … I think it's going to sell very well."

Book stores are one way to sell books -- and book clubs are another. Esther Bushell of Literary Matters leads book clubs and organizes author events near her home base of Greenwich, Conn. She said she was impressed by Donoghue's charismatic personality.

"I was just entranced," Bushell said. "I was very engaged by her as a speaker, and that's part of it. I've had events and the authors were just terrible speakers. So, there's no sale there. There's no interest there. People really need to connect with an author."

Still basking in the glow of Donoghue's charm, Bushell said confidently that she would organize an event featuring the author. But just a few days ago, she said it was a hard sell because of the subject matter.

O book editor Sara Nelson attended the same event at BookExpo and was also impressed by Donoghue. Nelson can't possibly read all of the novels sent her way -- but she finished Room and reviewed it favorably in her magazine. Still, Nelson said, no matter what a publisher does to build the buzz, there's never a guarantee that the book will take off with the public or with reviewers.

"It's a tricky thing for publishers, too," she said, "because I think you can sell too hard. And I think a lot times, books that get sold very hard or get a lot of press beforehand, there's a backlash waiting to happen."

There are plenty of stories of books that got hyped and went nowhere.  At this point, editor Judy Clain said, everyone at Little Brown is just holding their breath.

"Everyone's nervous," she said. "I mean, not nervous so much as just hoping.  ... We can only say 'so far so good,' and that along the way we've had the right signs. I would be surprised if it just doesn't work at all."

Fain said that as the publicists wait for the book's official U.S. release Monday, it's a little like that half-hour before the party you are hosting gets under way.

"You've done everything you can," Fain said. "You've sent out the invitations, the food looks beautiful on the table, and then you're like, 'I hope people come to my party.' So, now we're just hoping the readers come to our party."

It won't be long before they know just how many guests will accept the invitation.

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.