Friday, September 14, 2007

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

From Hardcover to Paper,
How a Blockbuster Was Born

A Calculated Approach
For 'Eat, Pray, Love';
Memoir Strikes a Nerve
September 14, 2007; Page A1

When Pearson PLC's Viking imprint published Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" early last year, it printed 30,000 copies -- only 5,000 more than the total U.S. hardcover sales of her previous release. "We had high hopes, but we didn't put it out in best-seller numbers," says Viking Publisher Paul Slovak.

The title -- a chatty recounting of the author's divorce, spiritual search and self-redemption as she traveled the world -- was the fourth for Ms. Gilbert, a former writer at GQ magazine. Although her work was well-reviewed, Ms. Gilbert was considered a mid-list author, talented but not a proven seller.

Then a strange thing happened: The paperback edition of "Eat, Pray, Love," published in January, quickly gained must-read status. Women everywhere, it seemed -- on trains, planes and exotic beaches -- were suddenly entranced, making it this summer's break-out publishing hit. The book has had a 32-week run on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list, where it currently occupies the No. 1 position. Paramount Pictures acquired the movie rights for actress Julia Roberts. The author says a sequel is already in the works.

[Elizabeth Gilbert]

"I was hooked on page one," says Barbara Gattermeir, a grandmother in Kansas City., Mo., who inhaled the paperback in two days. "I've since recommended it to a lot of people, and they've all called, said they loved it, and that they'd given it to somebody else."

The book's transformation from respectable-selling hardcover to paperback sensation was no accident. It came about after a series of calculated moves from Viking's sister Penguin paperback line, where executives worked to interpret sales patterns and create a marketing blitz to attract individual readers as well as book clubs.

Penguin's approach shows how publishers, which typically don't conduct market research, are becoming increasingly adept at hand-picking certain titles for stardom. It also underscores the pressure for publishing houses to deliver books that can get a big second wind from a paperback release -- even if hardcover sales don't exactly explode.

The vast majority of books face a tough reality. New releases that fail to take off in the first couple of weeks -- when publishers often pay to place copies on stores' front tables -- are relegated to the back shelves.

"The usual reflex is to give a book two weeks in the sun and then move on," says Bob Miller, president of Walt Disney Co.'s Hyperion book division. This rule of thumb, however, doesn't apply to books with break-out potential.

"These titles require a different mind-set, the realization that by staying on them you can build something bigger than you'd see with the normal best-seller pattern," says Mr. Miller.

[go to video]
Watch a Q&A session with "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert (YouTube).

In the case of "Eat, Pray, Love," executives at Penguin paid close attention to the hardcover's early reception. It was excerpted in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine and landed a favorable cover article in the New York Times Book Review -- both big plums for any author.

Hundreds of readers were emailing Ms. Gilbert to tell her how much her story had affected them -- and to share their own intimate experiences. Instead of evaporating, hardcover sales surprisingly gained momentum in late spring both at major chains and large independent bookstores.

The title surfaced on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list at No. 12 for the issue dated March 19, and then fell to No. 15 the following week. On March 21, Ms. Gilbert appeared on NBC's "Today" show and the book again hit the list for another week.

Ms. Gilbert, 38 years old, says she was pleased with her progress, but figured the book had seen its best days. "I was so happy with everything that happened," she says. "I was more than satisfied. And then I thought that was it. It should have been over. But it wasn't."

Poring over sales data, Penguin executives saw that stores were reordering at unusual rates. Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest book retailer, continued to sell 400 to 500 hardcover copies through the end of the year. The book had "legs." The trend suggested that the memoir was generating word-of-mouth publicity, believed by many to be the single most important factor in creating a major best seller.

"What you're looking for are books that didn't just ship and die," says Kathryn Court, publisher of Penguin Books. Hardcovers, in other words, that have already "seeded the audience." Ms. Court makes a point of sitting in on Viking's promotion and strategy sessions, where she looks for titles that have reordered well and whose sales are growing week to week.

In fall 2006, Ms. Court began to put a plan in motion. First, she decided that the hardcover dust jacket -- with its script lettering rendered in pasta, prayer beads and flowers -- was so appealing that she would use it again for the paperback. Penguin then threw all of its sales and marketing muscle behind the paperback release, set for Jan. 30, 2007.

Each month Penguin publishes 15 to 20 fancy "trade" paperbacks -- high-quality editions that are larger in format and easier to read than their cheaper, mass-market cousins. But it only really lends its weight to one or two. As a sign of its commitment, Penguin ordered a first printing of 170,000 paperbacks for "Eat, Pray, Love" -- more copies than the book had sold in hardcover, and very large for a nonfiction title. Price, too, was significant. The hardcover cost $24.95, while the trade paperback would be much more affordable, at $15.

Next, Ms. Court stoked interest throughout the publishing house itself. She asked every member of Penguin's sales and marketing team to read the book, including those who sell to the country's largest chains. She wanted to spark the sort of enthusiasm that becomes infectious among store buyers -- a tough crowd that is inundated with new books every week. "You've got to translate that excitement to people on the outside," Ms. Court says.

Upon its debut, Penguin made certain the paperback would have high visibility in stores, promoting "Eat, Pray, Love" with freestanding 12-copy floor displays. That was a show of confidence among retailers, who reserve such prime, paid real estate for books with huge promise.

Penguin also invested in ads. In addition to targeting usual suspects like the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker magazine, it bought space in Yoga Journal -- a nod to the book's spiritual sensibility. The publishers' sales and marketing team focused on the book's progress in weekly meetings. The goal was to create so much buzz that the book would quickly become a New York Times best seller -- which it did.

"A lot of the reason that these big paperbacks have sold so many copies is that we're like a dog with a bone," says Ms. Court. "We don't give up."

Selling Ms. Gilbert, the author, was just as crucial. Unlike many writers who don't like touring and are uncomfortable in front of crowds, Ms. Gilbert has a sunny, upbeat personality that plays well on television and in personal appearances. Notes Ms. Court: "When the writer of a book is attractive, generous, and funny, booksellers end up rooting for her."

It helped that Ms. Gilbert had built a following from her prior books. Her debut novel, "Stern Men," a love story published in 2000 and set against the backdrop of lobster fishing in Maine, was chosen as a Discover Great New Writers selection at Barnes & Noble.

"We have a history," says Edward Ash-Milby, who buys biographies and memoirs for Barnes & Noble, which quickly emerged as one of Ms. Gilbert's most enthusiastic supporters.

Ms. Gilbert, who had toured at the hardcover launch of "Eat, Pray, Love," hit the road again in support of her paperback, visiting more than 20 cities through early summer. The itinerary included a West Coast trip in June where she appeared at bookstores in Pasadena, Malibu and San Jose.

The author gained book-club traction. Her memoir was the No. 3 Book Sense Reading Group Pick for spring/summer 2007, which meant many of the independent bookstore members of the American Booksellers Association recommended it to their customers.

Such kudos are key to winning over retailers like the Tattered Cover. Based in the greater Denver area, it has three locations and sells to more than 100 book clubs. It also sends out a bimonthly email newsletter to 3,000 club members. Five years ago the retailer serviced only half as many clubs.

"It all feeds word of mouth, and that's what takes you from 5,000 copies to 50,000 copies to 500,000 copies," says Ms. Court. "We can't make people love a book."

Penguin is particularly adept at spinning gold from paperback titles. In addition to Ms. Gilbert's memoir, it published Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees" in 2003 and last summer's smash hit "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" by Kim Edwards. Both novels were strong sellers in hardcover but exploded as paperbacks with more than three million copies each in print.

The $15 U.S. paperback edition of "Eat, Pray, Love" will generate about $15 million in sales for the publisher if it sells two million copies, a number that now seems conservative. On average, a successful nonfiction paperback may sell 50,000 copies in a year, translating to less than $400,000 in sales.

Ms. Gilbert's experience shows what a big influence fancy trade paperbacks are having on an industry that prices its mass-market paperbacks at about $7.99. Back in the 1970s, those smaller, rack-sized paperbacks were the blockbusters of the business, led by such best sellers as William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (11 million copies sold); Peter Benchley's "Jaws" (more than nine million copies), and Sidney Sheldon's "The Other Side of Midnight" (six million copies plus).

"One of the mantras of publishing economics of the 1970s and early 1980s was that mass-market paperbacks could achieve 10 times the sales of a hardcover," says Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Bertlesmann AG's Random House Inc. Then retailers started discounting hardcover titles, and the smaller, cheaper paperbacks lost ground.

Laurence Kirshbaum, a book agent who heads up LJK Literary Management in New York, estimates that the current ratio between hardcover and paperback sales is one to one -- mostly because so many hardcover books are so steeply discounted. "These days the bulk of the people who are interested in a book buy it in hardcover; that's what makes titles such as 'Eat, Pray, Love' so exceptional," says Mr. Kirshbaum. "They are throwbacks to the days when paperbacks sold huge multiples of the hardcover."

Reading tastes, too, have changed. Virtually all of the hottest recent paperbacks have flourished largely because they appeal to women -- buyers who account for 60% to 70% of U.S. book sales. Among the hits are Jeannette Walls's memoir of her difficult childhood, "The Glass Castle," which now has 1.7 million fancy paperbacks in print, and Azar Nafisi's memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran," which is selling at about the same level. Lisa See's novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," has topped 1.1 million. None were hardcover blockbusters.

"These books connect with readers because they are about lives that are being transformed, or lives that are being saved," says Patrick Nolan, director of trade paperback sales for the Penguin Group.

Ms. Gilbert's story seemed tailor-made for a female audience. Although she appeared to have everything a successful woman could want, Ms. Gilbert experienced a premature midlife crisis in her late 20s, crying on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m. To the dismay of her husband, she announced she was leaving him and wanted a divorce.

Then she found her "soul mate," only to discover that they had different emotional needs and couldn't build a life together. Finally, she decided to put everything behind her and get as far away as possible. She says her misery led to "prayer and a conversation with God that I wanted to take to the highest level." Although her plans were uncertain, she knew she wanted to learn Italian, meditate at her guru's temple in India and spend time with a healer in Bali.

It helps when a book has a happy ending, as it gives readers hope. Ms. Gilbert eventually finds love in the arms of a divorced Brazilian businessman whom she met in Bali. There was a hitch: If they wanted to live together in the U.S., they would need to get married -- something they both had sworn never to do again.

That romantic saga is the subject of her next book. The first printing will be considerably larger than 30,000 copies.