Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles (by Joanne Kaufman, the New York Times)

Note to the capture: Esther Bushell, of Old Greenwich, Conn., leads 10 book clubs and is courted by publishers. Alan S. Orling for the new york times

November 19, 2007
Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles

In early June, at Book Club Expo, a gathering of reading group members and book lovers, the author Khaled Hosseini opened the first session with heartfelt thanks to the attendees.

“He said that ‘The Kite Runner’ wasn’t being read until book groups got hold of it,” recalled Ann Kent, who put together the event, which was held in San Jose, Calif. “He acknowledged their power in putting his book on the best-seller list and keeping it on the best-seller list. It was pretty profound.”

Profound or not, the message had resonance. Increasingly, authors and publishers are tipping their hats to the power of 8 or 10 or 12 women (and usually they are women) sitting around a dining room table, dissecting their particular book of the month, then spreading the word to their friends.

Along with “The Kite Runner,” the successes of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” “Water for Elephants,” “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Kabul Beauty School” have been credited to the early and continuing support of reading groups.

Film companies are trying to get in on the act, according to Russell Perreault, director of publicity at Vintage Books. “They’re asking us how to get clubs to read books before the movie version comes out,” he said.

Accordingly, Mr. Perreault sent reading group coordinators copies of the novels “Evening,” “Reservation Road” and “Atonement,” all Vintage titles adapted for the screen by Focus Features.

“By working so closely with the publisher, we have been able to spark interest from not only the avid moviegoers who seek out films of substance, but also the reading and discussion groups that are still very much a part of today’s marketplace,” said David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing at Focus Features.

Similarly, because of the tremendous success of “The Kite Runner” among book clubs, its publisher has spread the word to them that the movie is coming in December. The hope is “that they would support the movie as much as they had supported the book,” said Geoffrey Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group.

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said an increasingly potent sales pitch when debating the merits of a manuscript is whether “this would work for a book group.”

Five years ago, the topic might not have come up. Reading groups were still a bit of an untapped resource. When, for example, Ms. Kent was introducing Book Group Expo two and a half years ago, she asked publishers to serve as sponsors. “They said it sounded like a good idea and wished us well, but they weren’t having the ‘aha’ moment,” she said. For the meeting last June, however, Random House, Penguin and other houses got involved.

“You don’t see the whole picture when you start out,” said Elinor Lipman, a novelist. She was initially hesitant when her publisher urged her to visit book group gatherings near her home in suburban Boston. “You see it as seven women wanting me to come and talk about their book. It seemed local, not a phenomenon. I didn’t realize it was spreading like wildfire.”

When Esther Bushell, a former English teacher, began working as a reading group coordinator five years ago, she said, she had no interaction with publishers. But now, “there’s a lot of courting going on,” said Ms. Bushell, who is based in Old Greenwich, Conn., and leads 10 groups. “I receive daily packages of galleys. I’m solicited by publishers asking my opinion of upcoming books.”

Additionally, publishers have arranged for Ms. Bushell to take field trips to New York with one or another of her groups to meet the authors of some of the books they have discussed. “I’m already planning our spring visit to the city,” she said. “The publishers are very eager to accommodate me.”

All the wooing from publishers has made Ms. Bushell part of the marketing front line. “I’ve done a good job of promoting a couple of the books to my groups,” she said. “They all read ‘The Book Thief.’ They all read ‘The Shadow of the Wind.’ They all read ‘Snowflower and the Secret Fan.’”

Making reading groups aware of a book is, increasingly, an effort that takes place on the Internet. “Technology opens a lot of opportunities to connect with readers,” said Ellen Archer, publisher of Hyperion Books. “For the most part, author tours are not as successful as they used to be.”

Publishers are buying space on AuthorBuzz, a two-year-old Web site that helps writers promote their work. “We have 10 spots a month for our book club promotions, and we’re selling out three to four months in advance,” said M. J. Rose, a novelist and the founder of AuthorBuzz.

Some publishing houses, like Simon & Schuster and Ballantine, have set up dedicated Web sites where reading group members can arrange phone chats with authors, download discussion guides and podcasts, and take part in live Web events. Sometimes there are sweepstakes whose grand prize is a visit from the author.

Simon & Schuster has created 40 downloadable videos of authors, some of whom “directly acknowledge book groups and thank them for their support,” said Aimee Boyer, a Simon & Schuster senior marketing manager.

And the Bantam Dell Publishing Group plans to introduce in February a new imprint for women’s fiction, which will pump out books meant to appeal to reading groups — using the trade paperback format — and for the mass market in the smaller size.

“We want to get books on that circuit,” Barb Burg, a Bantam spokeswoman, said of the reading groups. “There’s not a publisher in town for which this isn’t a top priority.”

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