Holt Lavished $1.3 Million;
Visions of a New 'Code'
October 16, 2006; Page A1
Over last year's Labor Day weekend, book publisher John Sterling began reading a manuscript by a Yale Law School professor. It was a debut murder mystery about a 1909 visit to the U.S. by Sigmund Freud.
As he read, Mr. Sterling, 54 years old, became convinced he had to publish the book. Jed Rubenfeld's "The Interpretation of Murder" had an intriguing cast of characters, an engaging plot and a dash of kinky sex. It was a historical thriller, one of publishing's hottest recent categories. It had the potential, he thought, to be the next "Da Vinci Code."
Mr. Sterling acquired "Murder" for $800,000, one of the highest advances Henry Holt & Co. had ever paid. He committed his publishing house to a $500,000 marketing campaign, in which it printed 10,000 advanced reader copies at a cost of $17,000.
He knew a host of other big books would launch at the same time. One that would turn out to be competitive was another debut thriller, Diane Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale," a gothic novel that has been compared with "Jane Eyre." So he prepared a marketing blitz, including a promotional cover wrapped around an issue of Publishers Weekly and full-page ads in the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Holt built a $10,000 Web site. There was an author's lunch with the media in New York City, an author dinner in San Francisco and lunch with senior staff at Barnes & Noble Inc., the country's largest and most powerful book retailer.
Much like Hollywood, book publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest. A publisher has to find a title with huge potential and single it out for special attention. If the book gets traction, the upside is limitless. If it fails, there's a long way to fall.
When a book doesn't sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant. With 172,000 books published last year, shelf space is limited. In the case of "Murder," a decision by Barnes & Noble proved fateful to the book's fortunes.
In a low-margin business, publishers feel compelled to take big gambles. Little, Brown & Co., an imprint owned by France's Lagardère SCA, paid a whopping $2.2 million for "The Historian," a thriller from first-time author Elizabeth Kostova, and gave it hefty marketing support. Despite mixed reviews, there are now more than one million hardcovers in print in the U.S., an extraordinary amount for a debut novel, and a home run for the publisher.
Holt is a small, reputable company to which Mr. Sterling had already brought successful and well-regarded nonfiction titles. Now he saw a chance to break into hit fiction. "We needed to take the next step," says Mr. Sterling. "If the payoff is bigger, you'll take a bigger risk. That's how the business has changed."
Mr. Sterling, a veteran editor who has worked with Philip Roth and historical-thriller writer Joseph Kanon, became president and publisher of Henry Holt in 1998 when it was in financial disarray. He dropped some authors and brought in new ones. He focused on quality nonfiction titles, acquiring and editing Rick Atkinson's "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943." The book won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in history.
Today, Henry Holt publishes 150 adult titles a year plus children's books, and generates about $45 million annually in revenue for its parent, Germany's Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH. Holtzbrinck doesn't reveal the unit's profits.
Mr. Sterling found himself comparing "Murder" with other recent titles that hit the big time. The model was Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which has 12 million hardcovers and 7.5 million paperbacks in print in the U.S. Such huge best sellers are more likely these days now that the Internet and mass-merchant stores have substantially expanded the number of places books are sold.
Historical thrillers in particular are hot. One theory says readers are seeking a certainty in these books that since the end of the Cold War they're having trouble finding elsewhere.
"We're seeing a return to the past because everything was in its place, and people were recognizably polarized in a way that gives us comfort," says literary agent Richard Curtis. "In the post 9/11 world, we aren't clear about our enemies. Is the military officer in an Iraqi uniform a friend, or is he a terrorist posing as one? We need to know who to root for and historical fiction provides us with that."
Mr. Sterling had edited good historical fiction before and thought Mr. Rubenfeld, 47, had accomplished the difficult task of making real-life figures come alive. In one scene, Freud attends a dinner party and describes what each of the various guests is thinking. He tells the host, who picked up a dinner knife instead of a spoon, that a seductive guest had made him sexually competitive.
Before Mr. Sterling was able to make a formal bid, Lagardère's Warner Books offered $1.2 million for world-wide rights, with the intention of reselling the title overseas. "It was everything you want in a commercial book," says Laurence Kirshbaum, at the time chief executive of the publishing group that oversaw the imprint.
But Mr. Rubenfeld's agent, William Morris's Suzanne Gluck, had other ideas. She knew these books held international appeal and wanted to sell the overseas rights herself.
Eager to avoid an auction, Mr. Sterling offered $800,000 for North American rights alone, which Ms. Gluck accepted. Later she sold foreign rights to 31 publishers for more than $1 million. That effectively valued Mr. Rubenfeld's manuscript above $1.8 million, not including the undisclosed sum Warner Bros. paid for movie rights.
Before the book deal closed in fall 2005, Mr. Sterling met with Mr. Rubenfeld to determine whether the author was amenable to making changes. The original title, "The Name of Action," would have to go; Mr. Sterling wanted a stronger, more striking title. Some of the characters were thin. Certain transitions from a first-person to third-person narrative weren't effective. The plot needed to be cleaner.
Mr. Rubenfeld agreed and, more importantly, promised to deliver the rewrite quickly. Holt wanted to launch an all-out marketing push in about seven months to coincide with the annual booksellers convention, which was scheduled for late May in Washington, D.C. Every year, thousands of titles are presented at Book Expo America, but only a few generate enough buzz to establish a book as a hot fall contender. That's when Mr. Sterling wanted to publish.
In the few weeks that followed his acquisition of "Murder," Mr. Sterling had reason to believe he'd made one of the best decisions in his career. Rival publishers professed envy. Holt's sales and marketing people told him how pleased they were to be selling the book. Mr. Sterling also had a dedicated author. Mr. Rubenfeld had written his senior thesis at Princeton about Freud and met his early deadlines.
The early signs were good. Entertainment Weekly magazine, in its June "Must Read" issue, declared the book, "a compelling, expertly crafted murder mystery." Better still, the magazine said the novel was "shaping up to be this year's 'Historian.' "
Independent stores were particularly enthusiastic. "Murder" was named the No. 1 pick for September by Book Sense, the marketing arm of the American Booksellers Association. That meant the book would likely be displayed at 1,200 independent bookstores across the nation and promoted in more than a dozen newspapers. Mr. Sterling ordered a first printing of 185,000 copies, an impressive number for any debut novel.
In Salt Lake City, Betsy Burton, owner of the King's English Bookshop, found the plot "satisfyingly complicated." Carole Horne, head buyer of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., thought it was a "very smart, literary mystery, very entertaining."
Mr. Rubenfeld's book was published Sept. 5, and the first feedback came a week later. It wasn't good. Holt got early word that first-week sales were strong enough to rank it only No. 18 on the New York Times extended best-seller list dated Sept. 24.
It was a decent showing for an unknown author. But Holt was betting that "Murder" would be a publishing phenomenon. For Mr. Sterling, the message was clear.
"I was aware after week one that it was going to be much tougher to make this a big hit, because blockbusters have to begin big," he says. "But you make your plans months ahead of time, your commitments months in advance. And you don't cancel them."
An early review in the New York Times by Janet Maslin cited Mr. Rubenfeld's "smart, jocular approach to an elaborate undertaking." But a later review in the Sunday Book Review section called it "both smutty and pretentious." Entertainment Weekly, despite its early enthusiasm, graded the book "B-minus."
Mr. Rubenfeld began his book tour the week of Sept. 18, an effort that would take him to 12 cities. Holt, anticipating a murderers' row of potential best sellers scheduled to be published in October, was determined to make its mark in September. But the results at the end of the second week were equally disappointing. The book slipped to No. 20 for the Times's Book Review dated Oct. 1.
Holt's dismay was compounded by the breakout success of another book: Ms. Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale." Atria, an imprint of CBS Corp.'s Simon & Schuster, paid a little more than $1 million for the novel, which told the tale of a young bookseller summoned by a famous author intent on revealing her life's most intimate secrets.
Atria saved its ad dollars for the launch, reasoning that its publicity shouldn't peak too early. It also got a critical, unexpected boost. Senior executives at Barnes & Noble fell in love with the title and made "The Thirteenth Tale" the inaugural pick for a new program, Barnes & Noble Recommends.
The program, which launched Sept. 12, focuses all the retailer's employees on a single title. It includes in-store displays, promotions online and direct emails to customers. "It's the first time we put everything, including 40,000 booksellers who hand sell books, behind one title," says Steve Riggio, the chain's CEO. With that big push, the book hit No. 1 at the chain the first day it went on sale.
"The Thirteenth Tale," published Sept. 12, debuted on the New York Times list at No. 1. It was still there for the week dated Oct. 8. Barnes & Noble Vice President of Merchandising Bob Wietrak says the chain really liked Mr. Rubenfeld's book but that the staff "fell in love" with Ms. Setterfield's novel.
" 'The Thirteenth Tale' is a fantastic book, a classic that appeals to a broad audience," says Mr. Wietrak. "Friends of mine loved 'The Interpretation of Murder,' but it may be that the audience for Freud and Jung is smaller."
The following week, the book dropped to No. 30 on the New York Times list. Any lingering hopes of achieving breakthrough sales were finished. Nielsen BookScan, which says it tracks about 70% of retail book sales, says "Murder" sold 12,400 copies in its first 19 days. Barnes & Noble alone sold nearly 15,000 copies of "The Thirteenth Tale" in only five days.
Holt invested $1.3 million in buying and marketing the book, a sum that doesn't include the cost of manufacturing. It will need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies to recoup its investment. Barring an unforeseen spike, it will be lucky to get to half that. Next year, Holt hopes to benefit from paperback sales. And there's always the chance a movie might get made.
Still, the book never caught fire and could leave Holt in the red. What happened? A timing issue, say several rival publishers. Holt may have erred in promoting its book so heavily six months prior to publication. Booksellers might have been talking about "Murder" during the summer, but they were recommending "The Thirteenth Tale" in early fall. Mr. Sterling disputes that, saying it was imperative to get the industry talking about the book early, given that it was a first-time effort.
Mr. Rubenfeld doesn't think anything went wrong. His experience touring the country was better than he anticipated. He was surprised at the support he received from booksellers who he says dubbed the book a success. "It might have been a little unrealistic to imagine I could be No. 1 given the fact that there are so many big books this fall, but I remain hopeful."
Novelist and historian Caleb Carr says times have changed since his novel, "The Alienist," a thriller that's considered a touchstone of modern historical fiction, was published in 1994. Readers won't embrace a Sherlock Holmes-type expert -- even a fictional Sigmund Freud -- who provides solutions at the last moment, he says. "The world no longer believes rational thought will solve our problems," says Mr. Carr.
He also notes the virtual impossibility of creating a guaranteed publishing phenomenon. "What this shows," he adds, "is that you can't schedule cosmic events."
Mr. Sterling says he agrees that book publishing, for all its planning, remains a roll of the dice. "I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know," he says. "It's the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing about the business."
On Sept. 20, when the bad news about Mr. Rubenfeld's book was coming over the transom, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave a speech to the United Nations. He held up a copy of Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and praised the book, which shot up the Amazon best-seller list, prompting the printing of an additional 50,000 copies to meet demand. Mr. Chomsky's publisher: Henry Holt & Co.