07.06.09

The Book-Club Hustlers

Enterprising fiction writers are marketing themselves to book groups in person, by phone, and over Skype to boost sales. Meet the new breed of literary types on the make.

There is a thing authors do, nervously, when they think no one is looking. They check out their numbers—online sales figures, ratings, rankings, reader reviews. Not long ago, Joshua Henkin, a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn College, was doing just such a thing in his home office. He was scrolling through Goodreads.com, monitoring the reception of his new novel, Matrimony. A user named Shelley had given him a mixed review—three stars out of five. Henkin clicked on her name and decided to email her, offering to attend her book club, if she had one. She did—that very evening—and, after several exchanges, Henkin was set to call into it.

Joshua Henkin has topped 175 visits to book groups. “With 10 people in each group,” he said, “that’s 1,750 books sold right there.”

Henkin had already participated in over 80 groups, most of them personal visits to between 10 and 12 middle-aged women. By now, he's topped 175. “With 10 people in each group, that’s 1,750 books sold right there.” When his first novel came out in 1997, Henkin said the book got good reviews but fell by the wayside in sales, in part because his editor was dying. “I’d heard enough horror stories in publishing that even if a book got great reviews it wasn’t going to sell well, and I got the sense that so many people were in book groups,” he says. So when Matrimony first came out, he emailed friends to put him in touch. Now groups find him. And he's willing to drive up to two hours, one way, to any group that asks. “Most sales are going to come shortly after publication. When you see sales stay steady,” Henkin says, “something is going on in terms of word of mouth. And that tends to be book clubs.”

Henkin’s efforts are an enterprising response to the publishing industry’s chronic woes. Money is scarce for publicity, and the way it’s often hoarded to buy full-page ads for the books that make bank (think: James Patterson, Stephen King) means that authors must be on-call at all times. To make a living off of fiction, most writers must be as attuned to marketing as they are to writing. Mickey Pearlman, an author, editor, and professional book-club facilitator, says, “The only thing that’s going to save publishing is book clubs.” Pearlman offers four-hour book-marketing seminars (for $500), focusing on “how to creatively market your book on the Web and in other outlets”—one of those outlets being, of course, book groups. “You’re building an interest in you,” Pearlman says, “so they’ll be very likely to buy your next book.”

The focus on book clubs has spurred the evolution of a new breed: the author-hustler, the writer who succeeds in large part because of door-to-door salesmanship. After the writing comes a new challenge, one of industriousness, perseverance, and charm. Since 2000, Adriana Trigiani has averaged two to three book clubs a week by phone, and this past April, she led “The World’s Biggest Book Club,” a 300-person event run out of New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart High School (the very set of Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga’s [mis]education). Chris Bohjalian, whose book Midwives was an Oprah selection in October 1998, began phoning into groups after he was forced to cancel his book tour in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Requests keep increasing, and this year he anticipates talking to 120 groups. As soon as The Divorce Party came out, Laura Dave was reaching out to book clubs at the suggestion of her editor and publicist, both of whom recognized her book’s potential appeal to the middle-aged woman. “Every time I speak to a book group,” Dave says, “almost without exception that book club refers me to another book club that emails.” Dave has done over 100 discussions in person, by phone, and on Skype. She says that Gwyn, the middle-aged narrator of her second novel, is a composite of some of the women she’s met in groups.

The average book club tends to want neither an airplane novel, nor Proust, but something in between: a novel relevant to the members’ lives but also with enough texture for a good discussion. And so reaching out to book clubs is becoming a marketing strategy for more literary works. “I think it’s a rare writer I know who hasn’t done any,” says Henkin. “A lot of people like me, literary writers, whose reputation was to sit back and be snobby, well, it’s really changing.” Khaled Hosseini, author of the The Kite Runner, allegedly took a year off and went to every book group he could. Despite being a bestselling author, Robert Alexander, whose historical fiction trilogy is based on the Russian Romanov family, continues to schedule chats. As does Dara Horn, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard and has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College. Even the notoriously shy Jhumpa Lahiri will awkwardly sit through a discussion of her own book—at least when that discussion is attended by Ellen Silva, one of NPR’s senior editors. (In that case, Lahiri’s publisher paid for her to get there.)

Although it’s difficult to quantify just how much of book sales are due to book groups, the economic incentive is taken into consideration by many authors. Bohjalian says book groups don’t influence what he writes so much as they influence what he says. “When Skeletons at the Feast came out in hardcover in 2008, I was talking about it almost exclusively in terms of the Second World War. Then I met with book groups, and when the book came out in paperback in 2009, I was more likely to be talking about it as a love story. That might just be a common sense thing given than 90 percent of my readers are female.”

Group preferences are also playing a growing role in what’s being published. The first draft of Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy, the first novel of his Romanov trilogy, was initially rejected for publication 15 times, at which point Alexander hired an outside editor. She told him to shoot for a book-club “gem”—to cut the manuscript from 460 pages to 250 and hone in on the historical fiction. Alexander did and got three offers in eight days. His Viking and Penguin contracts, he says, even state that his books should be around 250 pages.

The Kitchen Boy is now in its 22nd printing, and was optioned to be made into a movie by Glen Williamson, the man behind American Beauty and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “People are saying…we had one of the best discussions,” says Alexander, who has spoken to over 250 book clubs, increasingly over Skype and iChat. “And that’s what makes a good book-club book—is it interesting, is it discussable.”

“One thing that’s true,” Dara Horn says, “maybe now more so than two or three years ago is that readers have this idea that they know you, or want to know you and want to have this personal connection to you, however tenuous… Unless you’re someone like Stephen King, there is this sort of expectation that you’re available to readers.” When her novel All Other Nights was published in April, she couldn’t travel because she had a new baby. Phoning into book clubs was one way she could help promote from home.

“People used to write with hesitation,” Horn says. Now she wakes up to all sorts of emails. A British reader recently lauded a specific page of her novel, then asked how he, being an older Gentile, might woo a much younger “Jewish American princess” in his office. He apologized for his drunken email the next day. “Who drunk dials writers?” Horn laughs. Bohjalian says that readers will come up to him at readings and say, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Haley from Facebook!”

“There are book groups who collect authors,” one author notes. All it takes is Google. If an author has a Web site, locate the tab that says Book Groups, or click on Contact, and shoot off an email. But it’s not impossible to snag those without Web sites. Take, for instance, Julia Glass, whose debut novel Three Junes won the National Book Award in 2002. A former New Yorker, she now lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and attends groups in the area when asked. When she was profiled in New York magazine, people advised her to remove her contact info from the phonebook. She refused. “I’m not a movie star,” she said. “I have kids who have friends who want to call them for play dates.” She received three cold calls and a letter of invitation from the MTA book group. “I got to this building in Midtown. And of course, it’s the people who never set foot in the subway and love to meet authors. It’s all the lawyers and the executives. They said they have great success getting New York authors.”

The authors who attend upwards of a hundred discussions wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it, if it was pure drudgery. Some writers are pleased and revitalized to hear complete strangers illuminate their work in interesting or unexpected ways. Others treat it like reconnaissance. They get to scope out their audience (or at least learn what sweets they eat) and what else they’re reading. “Certainly the initial impetus and the continuing impetus is: sell books. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,” Henkin says. “Fiction writers are gossips. What fiction writer doesn’t want to be invited into a stranger’s living room?”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Francesca Mari has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Believer, and other publications.