One wisecracking author (English accent preferable) – Helen Simonson
One devoted agent – Julie Barer
One team of experts at Random House – Editorial, Susan Kamil; Marketing, Avideh Bashirrad; Publicity, Karen Fink; Paperbacks, Jane von Mehren
Mix well and serve to bookstores and book clubs via hardcover, e-book and paperback. Then, enjoy the results — a first novel that is now available in 20 countries and translated into 18 languages, which has spent 36 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and has sold almost 400,000 copies in paper in less than a year.
“The Making of a Bestseller: From Acquisition to Market,” described a palatable success to about 70 audience members on November 9th at a panel event of the Women’s National Book Association – New York Chapter. Moderated by Jane Kinney-Denning and Manuela Soares, Pace University Publishing Program professors, the event took place at Wix Lounge .
Author Simonson described writing Major Pettigrew as leaving the “10% hairy margins” of literature and approaching “something authentic to me and what I wanted.” Her vision was an English village, a cottage, a retired man and the Pakistani woman who lived down the block.
Julie Barer saw Simonson’s initial chapter of Major Pettigrew for the first time in 2006 but the book wasn’t finished. “Once a year,” Barer said, “I’d send a note saying, ‘Wondering how that book is coming along.’” When Barer finally read the manuscript in December 2008, “I sat in my big white chair by the window and I didn’t move until the end.” At the time, the economy was slowing down and the book business looked dim. But after reading Simonson’s book, Barer said, “For the first time in weeks, I felt happy.”
Senior Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief of Random House, Susan Kamil read the manuscript and bought it immediately – even donning her coat and leaving her office to interrupt her boss’ lunch across the street to get a swift go-ahead for acquisition. “Your gut and your experience are what you have to go on when you have to act quickly,” she said. The editing process was brief, but during this time Simonson comically recalled for the audience that she had misinterpreted Kamil’s handwritten notes saying “love this,” thinking they said, “lose this.” Simonson took out some of her “best jokes.” Later, she had to reinsert them.
Avideh Bashirrad, Vice President, Director of Marketing at Random House, said that a focus on book clubs helped Major Pettigrew. It also sold quickly in e-book, boosted, in some part, by Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle around the same time.
When Karen Fink, Assistant Director of Publicity at the Random House Publishing group found herself daydreaming about whether “the Major and Mrs. Ali” would take a cruise together, she realized just how much she loved the characters. Her marketing team put together a plan: “I (heart) the Major.” The love theme resonated with the media, including the New York Times, where critic Janet Maslin reviewed the book “like a love letter,” Fink said.
“Really crucial in paperbacks is timing,” added Jane von Mehren, Senior Vice President, Publisher, Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. She pushed to have the book on sale in November to get the holiday buyers and lists, and studied the competition.
When Simonson got on the road to promote the book – an 8-city tour, then a 17-city tour – Fink said the author needed no media training. Simonson said, “I’m a stay-at-home mom with two kids and I don’t get out much. So give me a mike and I can go all night.”
The whole team’s enthusiasm for the book and the process showed. The WNBA-NYC audience was thoroughly satiated. A delicious evening.
This post is from guest blogger and WNBA-NYC member, Fatima Shaik. Fatima is the author of four books of fiction for adults and children set in her native New Orleans. She is currently researching her first non-fiction book about the members of a hidden Afro-Creole society in the 19th century. She teaches writing at Saint Peter’s College.