Many of the most arcane practices of the publishing industry are methods for working around this dilemma. It begins even before a book goes to press. Those unfamiliar with publishing’s peculiar customs may wonder at the mystique surrounding “in-house enthusiasm,” a key factor in the success of any book, whether it’s for adults or for children. In an ideal world, publishers would be enthusiastic about every single book they publish, right? But all too often the manuscript doesn’t fulfill the promise of the proposal, or the novel that one editor adores leaves everyone else cold. The ability of a book to generate interest in random staff members is a publisher’s first sign that it has legs. This is the beginning of the long and elaborate winnowing process that separates the also-rans from the hits, much of which happens even before store clerks take the books out of the carton.
“The Hunger Games” started out with an advantage. Scholastic Books, Collins’ publisher, had done well with Collins’ previous series, the Underland Chronicles, five books for middle-grade (8-to-12-year-old) readers about a boy who discovers a gritty fantasy world under the streets of New York. With that in mind, Scholastic bought “The Hunger Games” on the strength of a four-page proposal covering all three books of the projected YA (young adult) trilogy. In the summer of 2007, Collins submitted a draft of the first book to three editors, including Scholastic’s executive editorial director, David Levithan, and Kate Egan, a freelancer who has worked on all of Collins’ books.
Levithan and Egan were among the first readers to be sucked into the irresistible tractor-beam of Collins’ narrative. (…)
Scholastic employees began eagerly passing the manuscript around the office. It was the first stirring of what would become a tidal wave of word of mouth. “When you have the kind of book,” said Rachel Coun, executive director of marketing, “where assistants from other departments, even though it’s not their job, come asking for the galleys because they’ve heard it’s really great, you know you have something.” “We made a lot of copies,” said Levithan. “Coming out of the fall sales conference, everyone knew that the best way to generate excitement about ‘The Hunger Games’ was to get people to read ‘The Hunger Games.’” That isn’t as easy as it sounds; over 20,000 new children’s books are published annually, and the people Scholastic needed to reach — people outside the company — are drowning in the piles of books arriving from hopeful publishers.
In January, the book’s marketing team decided to send out photocopies of the manuscript instead of the nicely bound proofs that are typically submitted to industry professionals before the finished version of a book comes off the presses. “We didn’t want to wait until we had advance readers copies,” said Levithan. “We wanted key booksellers and key librarians to read it as soon as possible.” Just as significant as the timing, a choice like this is part of an informal semaphore system between publishers and the all-important first readers of any new children’s book. A Xeroxed, plastic-comb-bound manuscript conveys both urgency and the conviction that here’s a title that doesn’t need attractive packaging to make an impression. “It signals that this is something they think is special,” said Andrew Medlar, youth materials specialist for the Chicago Public Library. “It’s not something we do very often,” Levithan concurred.
Scholastic sales reps were given a limited number of manuscripts to distribute to their list of “Big Mouths,” children’s publishing lingo for booksellers who have exceptional influence with co-workers and peers. These people run regional associations, organize book fairs and set up school events. Teachers and librarians come to them for hot tips on new kids’ titles.
Sorry for such a long quote—in truth, this entire article is a fascinating read, even if you’re only slightly interested in publishing. The one thing it really emphasizes is something I’ve come to understand over the past two years of working in the business. Word of mouth is everything, and it almost always has to start in-house. I was talking to my coworkers today about this, in particular how different it is to have a book coming out in 2012 compared to 2009. Nowadays everyone is online on all the same social media platforms (awful as it is to admit, and feel free to judge me, but one of the reasons I took so strongly to Tumblr almost two years ago is because hardly any other authors were on it) and we all do the exact same kinds of promotions. It’s like shouting in a room where everyone is already yelling.
It’s like I always say—you sell movies and music to demographics, but you sell books to people. There is literally no better way to sell a book to someone than to talk to them about it face to face. That’s why we publishing types won’t shut up about how badly we need bookstores to stay open, and how important librarians are. There’s just no substitute for everyone loving a book and forcing it into the hands of their friends.