They seem to happen every year, those paperback sensations. Like Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees," or Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite...
NEW YORK — They seem to happen every year, those paperback sensations.
Like Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” or Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.” Kim Edwards’ “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.” Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s “Three Cups of Tea.”
Some are fiction, others travel or adventure. Edwards’ book is set in Kentucky, Hosseini’s is in California and Afghanistan, while Gilbert’s book is in Italy, India and Indonesia. They don’t appear to have a lot in common except that none has won major awards or sold brilliantly in hardcover or was written by anyone famous.
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It could be explained as coincidence but for one important connection — the publisher: Penguin Group USA.
“They [Penguin] saw these books as brand-new books, reaching a customer that had not been reached,” says Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble.
“They really are off the charts, as far as their trade paperbacks,” says Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstore, in Denver, Colo. “They market the books really well. They package the books really well, and the books are really good.”
Relying on luck, instinct and determination, Penguin has mastered the paperback blockbuster, taking a book already out in hardcover and giving it the kind of promotion once reserved for a new release: prominent store placement, author tours, online marketing, appeals to book clubs and community reading organizations.
The key, says Penguin paperback sales head Norman Lidofsky, is identifying a book that could become a “word-of-mouth” seller, a conversation starter, a reading-group favorite, such as “Eat, Pray, Love,” Gilbert’s physical and spiritual journey after divorce, or “The Kite Runner,” Hosseini’s timely novel about two Afghan boys and the betrayal that destroys their friendship.
“There’s no magic, no crystal balls,” Lidofsky says, “the books grow organically and then we focus on it and never stop. We’ve coined a phrase, ‘These books should be brought up during every sales call, every account, every time.’ “
Combined paperback sales for five Penguin hits, from “The Secret Life of Bees” to “Three Cups of Tea,” top 13 million, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales.
Booksellers say the latest in the Penguin line is Kate Jacobs’ “The Friday Night Knitting Club.” It was published in February 2007 and sold 40,000 copies in hardcover. The paperback, issued at the beginning of 2008, already has sold about 300,000 copies.
A debut novel, “Knitting Club” has an ideal setting for reading groups — a New York knitting shop and the women who meet there. Jacobs, a resident of Thousand Oaks, Calif., toured throughout January for the paperback and says she receives requests daily from book clubs asking her to speak with them.
“I have three clubs to call today and two clubs to call tomorrow,” Jacobs, who has a new novel coming out in May, said during a recent interview.
Because they’re cheaper, paperbacks almost always outsell hardcovers, but virtually all the books on The New York Times trade paperback list have obvious advantages: such as major success in hardcover or a movie tie-in.
The Penguin hits follow a different pattern. Jacobs, Kidd, Hosseini and the “Three Cups of Tea” authors were first-timers, while Gilbert and Edwards were relatively little-known. “Eat, Pray, Love” and “The Secret Life of Bees” each sold well in hardcover, more than 100,000 copies, but didn’t really catch on until issued in paperback.
The richest blessings — an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show for Gilbert, the film adaptation of “The Kite Runner” — only arrived after those books were million-sellers.
“I think one reason Penguin does so well is that it’s one of the few publishers that does not have a vertically integrated sales force. It has two sales forces, one that sells hardcover and one that sells paperback,” says Dan Goldin, general manager of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee.
The breakthrough for Penguin came with “The Secret Life of Bees,” originally published in 2002 and released in paperback in early 2003. The initial paperback print run was 160,000, an optimistic, but not unreasonable number.
The publisher soon learned that the book was selling far better than expected — at superstores, independents and price clubs.
“One of the things that happened when ‘Secret Life of Bees’ began to work was this understanding that there’s a thing called sales momentum and also such a thing called sales momentum that a publisher helps along,” says Jane von Mehren, who was then editor in chief for Penguin trade paperbacks.
Now senior vice president at Random House, von Mehren is hoping for similar success with such releases as Amy Bloom’s “Away” and Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank.”
“Before ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ there was always an understanding that there were certain books that had a paperback audience,” she said.
“The difference is that before when you were going from a book that sold 30,000 ]in hardcover] to 200,000 [in paperback], that was the outer limit. Now, the feeling is that if you have the right kind of book, there is no limit.”