I’ve had a number of people ask me about the recent reports of Grand Central Publishing trying to create a big splash with Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. The questions are basically, Why did they decide to put a hundred thousand dollar marketing budget behind an unproven writer’s obscure novel? Why did they choose that book? And Does this happen very often?
The process by which the leadership at Grand Central decided to pick this one book out of the pile and promote it like crazy is interesting and rare. It’s what we call in the industry a “make book” — that is, neither the author nor the project is well known, so we’re going to decide as a company to “make” the book successful. And we’re going to do that by treating it as though the author is already a bestselling writer, the story is already well known, and that big orders and big sales are expected to happen. It’s not as simple as buying their way onto the bestseller lists, as some have suggested. Instead, it’s putting the best resources of the company behind a particular project and risking that everybody else is going to buy into the vision.
Grand Central is part of the Hachette universe, and I know them pretty well. I was an associate publisher for the company back when it was part of the old Time-Warner Book Group, and the process they’re using on The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is the same they used on some other titles. Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South, about an old woman tending the graves of Rebel soldiers who died at the Battle of Franklin, was a make book. The company just got behind that book because it liked the story, marketed it like crazy, and saw it rise to the bestseller lists. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was a great example of a make book. The editor, Asya Munchnik (who is brilliant, and responsible for a string of hits from Michael Connelly, Stephenie Meyer, David Sedaris, and others) read the manuscript and loved it. Instead of quickly pushing it through to publication, she made sure the sales and marketing staff all read it, and that built enthusiasm in-house for the title. I believe the completed manuscript was in house for two full years before it released, giving it enough time for everyone in the company to get on board and treat it as a big book, even though it was a crime novel from a debut novelist, not a big, upmarket story from a well-known author. And all that company enthusiasm got the country to see it as a huge hit. The Historian was another hugely successful make book — Elizabeth Kostova’s lengthy debut novel about an academic going through her father’s papers and slowing realizing he had discovered the truth about Dracula. That was the first instance in American publishing history that a first-time novelist debuted at #1 on the New York Times list, and it was a make book from the same group of people.
What do all those books (as well as The Secret Wisdom of the Earth share? In my view, love and patience. People in-house read it and loved it. The sales guys saw potential in the story. (According to PW, VP of Sales Chris Murphy sent a note to everyone in the company, encouraging them to read it.) Although it was a mid-level deal, the print run was boosted. Then the marketing folks got involved and started pushing it. Soon people were talking about it, the industry buzz was great, and the print run had quadrupled. And nobody seemed to be in a hurry, so that this book had to come out next week — they were willing to take some time and let it build (and this in an industry that sometimes seems intent on racing through a release so they can move on to the next project). So everyone on the Hachette side loved it, they worked it patiently, and… well, it’s going to be a hit.
This doesn’t happen often. It’s got to be an intentional decision on behalf of the entire publishing company. They genuinely have to like it (and, let’s face it… few books have broad enough appeal to be loved by everyone in a company). It’s risky, in that they are putting a bunch of money behind an unknown author, and contemporary publishing runs on The Pareto Principle: 80% of the money comes from 20% of the books. Someone who did a bestselling book last year is your safest bet for dong a bestselling book next year. A publisher just doesn’t have the time and resources to do this with every title. But yes, it still happens, and thus gives hope to writers everywhere that THEIR book will be the next one chosen to be made into a hit.