STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Fall is the season when publishers start rolling out their big books, the ones they hope people will still be buying during the holiday season. And with all those writers vying for attention, it's important to build buzz about a book, get people talking about it.
NPR's Lynn Neary has been following the buzz on the novel "Room," which was just short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker award, and which will be released in this country next week.
LYNN NEARY: When it comes to selling books, says Heather Fain, marketing director for Little Brown Publishing Company, there is one sure-fire weapon.
Ms. HEATHER FAIN (Marketing Director, Little Brown Publishing Company): In a lot ways, the greatest marketing tool we ever have in publishing, and probably will never change, is word of mouth.
NEARY: That's not to say any publishing house expects the word to spread all by itself. Someone has to get the buzz started, usually the person who reads the book first. In the case of "Room," that was Little Brown executive editor Judy Clain.
Ms. JUDY CLAIN (Executive Editor, Little Brown Publishing Company): I have to say, I read it in almost, I think, one sitting. I was completely overwhelmed by it, and when I got to the end of the book, I felt more worried that other people wouldn't love it as much as I did, because I sort of knew that it was a difficult book.
NEARY: Difficult because "Room" is the story of a mother and a son who are being held captive by the man who kidnapped, raped her and is the boy's father. The child narrates the story, which begins in the only world he has ever known: a backyard shed that is, in reality, a prison.
Clain was convinced that Little Brown should buy the book. But first, she had to pitch it to her colleagues at an editorial meeting.
Ms. CLAIN: A lot people in the room were skeptical. And then what to started to happen - which I think has pretty much never happened to me before - is that one by one, everybody who read the book, people started to come by absolutely sort of evangelical about the book.
NEARY: Getting everyone within the company talking about the book is the first step in building the buzz. The next step is spreading that excitement to the outside world.
Little Brown knew the best way to overcome any discomfort with the concept was to get people to read the whole book. Marketing Director Heather Fain says they sent out some 6,000 advance copies of the novel.
Ms. FAIN: Some smaller novels, that's as many books as get printed...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FAIN: ...you know, to go out into the market place. So we really, really have just tried to make sure that every bookseller, librarian, blogger, reviewer - anyone who might possibly be interested in this book and interested in talking about it, has a copy already.
NEARY: The next step was BookExpo, the annual industry convention when booksellers from all over the country converge on New York and publishers compete to win their attention. They woo booksellers with parties and events where authors turn out to mix and mingle.
Sara Nelson, book editor at Oprah's "O" magazine, says winning over booksellers is crucial.
Ms. SARA NELSON (Book Editor, "O" Magazine): Even though they may be a tiny bookstore and they may only buy 10 copies of the book that they've just heard discussed lovingly by the publisher, they talk to each other about it and they get a galley, and they lend the galley out, and so on. So that's sort of where it starts.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
NEARY: At an event hosted by Little Brown, "Room's" author, Emma Donoghue, spoke to a small crowd of booksellers and members of the media.
Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, a San Francisco-based book store, had already read her advance copy of the novel.
Ms. ELAINE PETROCELLI (Bookseller, Book Passage): At first when I heard that it was from the point view of a five-year-old boy, I thought, oh, I don't know. But Emma Donoghue is so brilliant at the way she gets into the voice of this child and takes us into the room. And if you go around this convention today, you're going to hear people talking about it, even people who aren't in this room right now, because everyone's curious about it. And that is going to make for a pretty interesting - I think it's going to sell very, very well.
NEARY: Bookstores or one way to sell books. Book clubs are another. Esther Bushell of Literary Matters leads book clubs and organizes author events near her home base of Greenwich Connecticut. She was impressed by Donoghue's charismatic personality.
Ms. ESTHER BUSHELL (Book Group Facilitator, Literary Matters): I was just entranced. I was very engaged by her as a speaker, and that's part of it. I've had events, and the authors were just terrible speakers. So there's no sale there. There's no interest there. People really need to connect with an author.
NEARY: Still basking in the glow of Donoghue's charm, Bushell said confidently that she would organize an event featuring the author. But more recently, Bushell said the book was a hard sell because of its subject matter, though there is some interest in it now that it's been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Ms. NELSON: Why did I read past page five?
NEARY: Sara Nelson, who attended the same event at BookExpo, doesn't read anywhere near all the novels sent her way. But Nelson says she was also impressed by Donoghue. She finished the book and reviewed it favorably in "O" magazine. Still, Nelson says, no matter what a publisher does to build the buzz, there's never a guarantee that the book will take off with the public or with reviewers.
Ms. NELSON: It's a tricky thing for publishers, too, because I think you can sell too hard. And I think, a lot times, books that get sold very hard or get a lot of press beforehand, there's a backlash waiting to happen.
NEARY: There are plenty of stories of books that got hyped and went nowhere. At this point, editor Judy Clain says, everyone at Little Brown is just holding their breath.
Ms. CLAIN: Everyone's nervous. I mean, not nervous so much as just hoping. I mean, we can only say, so far so good and that, along the way, we've had a lot of the right signs. I mean, I would be surprised if it just doesn't work at all.
NEARY: Little Brown's Heather Fain says as they wait for the book's official U.S. release next week, it's a little like that half hour before the party you're hosting gets underway.
Ms. FAIN: You've done everything you can. You've sent out the invitations. The food looks beautiful on the table, and then you're like, I hope people come to my party. So now we just are hoping that all the readers come to our party.
NEARY: It won't be long before they know just how many guests will accept the invitation.
Lynn Neary, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can see for yourself what the buzz is about. You can read an excerpt from "Room" at our Web site: npr.org.
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
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