Word of mouth sells at bookseller convention

Word of mouth big seller at annual BookExpo America publishing convention

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Should Hannah Kent's "Burial Rites" become a hit with readers this fall, give some credit to the passion of a publishing executive named Karen Torres.

Torres, vice president for account marketing and retail operations at Hachette Book Group, met this weekend with hundreds of librarians, retailers and book club organizers at BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual national convention. She represented Hachette for a Saturday morning "speed-dating" session, in which publishers rotated from table to table and pitched a handful of upcoming releases.

Torres has a confident manner and big city accent that suggests a cross between Rhoda Morgenstern of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Gilda Radner's Rosanne Roseannadanna from "Saturday Night Live." Seated at a table that included book club adviser Denise Neary and librarian Patty Sussmann, Torres aimed high for "Burial Rites," a thriller set in 19th-century Iceland that comes out in September.

"This is the book that delivers from page one right to the very end," she insisted. "This will be a best-seller. I PROMISE you. Money back guaranteed. This is a book not to be missed and if you don't agree, you may call me personally. You can visit me at my office, and I'll take you out to lunch. I have a few books to talk about here, but my passion is for 'Burial Rites.'"

Torres clearly won over the table, especially after she concluded with a word about a rival release, Jocelyn Jackson's "Someone Else's Love Story," published this spring by HarperCollins imprint William Morrow. "Look her up," Torres advised.

"To have somebody really, heartily recommend a book makes a difference," said Sussmann, who helps run a book club at the Newburgh Free Library. "And to have her shout out about somebody they don't represent is even more impressive."

"She was a wonderful advocate for a book ('Burial Rites') she clearly loves," said Neary, based in Rockville, Md.

On one level, BookExpo is the standard noisy trade show — a sprawl of poster art, trinkets, gadgets and promotions, with an exhausting itinerary of parties, keynote speeches, panel discussions and interviews.

But the three-day convention, which ended Saturday, also is a chance to witness and perpetuate the art of word of mouth, publishing's most mysterious and most durable path to success. "Buzz" was the currency at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, and it appreciated in ways large and small.

Speeches by such top names as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and young adult author Veronica Roth drew the largest audiences, but more private conversations — some arranged, some spontaneous — ran throughout BookExpo, punctuated by nods and nudges, the exchange of business cards and the handing out of ARCs (Advance Reader Copies).

"So many books have caught my eye," said Neary, who was impressed by "Burial Rites" and another debut novel, "The Cartographer of No Man's Land," by P.S. Duffy. "BEA (BookExpo America) is overwhelming!"

"Burial Rites" will be published by the Hachette division Little, Brown and Co., which paid a reported seven figures to acquire the novel and a second book by Kent. The author was on the move for much of Friday. She was among the debut writers honored at a gathering of independent booksellers and was a featured speaker at a Little, Brown lunch that also included Donna Tartt, whose "Goldfinch" is one of the fall's most anticipated novels.

Kent was treated as a rising star but also felt like a jet-lagged tourist, a 28-year-old from Adelaide, Australia, who had never been to the U.S. before.

"I can't wait to get some time off," she told The Associated Press. "I guess I should go see the Statue of Liberty."

Publishers in general have finally had a moment to "catch our breath," according to Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch. The e-book boom has slowed to a "nice, steady pace," as described by Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, and for once no radical changes are expected in the market for the near future.

Just keeping track of the books is work enough; the convention is a vision of different worlds briefly thrown together. On the convention center floor, one might spot an old TV star (Tim Conway) or a prize-winning playwright (Tony Kushner), discuss L. Ron Hubbard novels at the Galaxy Press booth or stop at a pavilion for Mexico and look through an anthology of the country's recent fiction.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Democrat from Georgia, was in town to promote "March: Book One," the first of three planned graphic novels he co-wrote about the civil rights movement, a release inspired by a popular 1950s comic book about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Helen Fielding spoke about her latest Bridget Jones novel, "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy," and swore that she never imagined her work would become so popular. "I never thought anyone would read it, really," she told a Saturday breakfast gathering.

At the speed-dating event Friday, Picador marketing director Darin Kessler talked up Ronald Frame's "Havisham," a novel about the time-trapped spinster of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." The book, Kessler explained, would appeal to fans of literary and commercial fiction. "Havisham" was carefully researched and faithful to Dickens' spirit. But it was also a great story and accessible to those who don't care for the classics.

"'Great Expectations' was hoisted on me in seventh grade, and I hated it," Kessler said. "You don't need to be a Dickens fan to like this book."

View Comments