RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And here's a bestseller with an unlikely back-story, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It's the first book in a trilogy of thrillers written by a previously unknown Swedish journalist who died of a heart attack back in 2004. Without the author to help promote the book, the publisher has had to try some new strategies. And Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA reports those strategies are paying off.
MARTHA WOODROOF: The thrillers by the later Stieg Larsson had appeared on five European bestseller lists when Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta snapped up the American rights.
Mr. SONNY MEHTA (Editor-in-Chief, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.): What I liked about it was the absolute ambition of it. It's so many things. It's a multigenerational family saga. It's a story of corporate corruption, of religious fanaticism. It's about the darker elements in contemporary society. And then at its basic level, it's a kind of a classic locked-room mystery.
WOODROOF: With the American rights secure, Knopf had to figure out how to market Larsson to American readers. Publicity Director Paul Bogaards began by romancing booksellers months before publication with a flood of advance reading copies of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Mr. PAUL BOGAARDS (Publicity Director, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.): The retail channel was key because, of course, we're publishing a Swedish author who happens to be dead, OK. And, you know, in the absence of bookseller enthusiasm, you might, as a publisher, have a problem.
WOODROOF: The goal, Bogaards says, was to build momentum in the form of advance book sales. Knopf also took out a late summer ad in The New York Times Book Review offering a free copy of the thriller to anyone who wrote asking for one. American bloggers read raves about Stieg Larsson by their European counterparts, finagled copies of his books from overseas, and began touting "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" early this year. American crime fiction columnist Sarah Weinman was an early champion on her blog "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind."
Ms. SARAH WEINMAN (Crime Fiction Columnist): What makes any crime novel work, regardless of where it's set and what it's about, is how much empathy does the writer have for his or her chosen subjects and for his characters? And if there's one thing that comes through besides passion, it's also empathy.
WOODROOF: Stieg Larsson's day job was as a crusading anti-fascist journalist who was passionate in his support of anyone being victimized. He co-founded a magazine in Sweden called Expo where Daniel Poohl was a colleague.
Mr. DANIEL POOHL (Editor in Chief, Expo): He is one of the few idealistic people. I have never met anyone like him, actually, to be honest. I read the books after he died. It was, in some way, a way to hear Stieg's voice again.
WOODROOF: The American edition of the novel sports enthusiastic blurbs from such bestselling authors as Michael Connelly, Lee Child, and Harlan Coben, but also one from Michael Ondaatje who wrote "The English Patient."
Mr. MEHTA: Michael Ondaatje was in the office some months ago and saw it lying around, took a copy with him to a holiday in Hawaii or something, and then phoned me and said, who is this guy? What an absolutely wonderful read.
WOODROOF: So how successful was Knopf at marketing "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?" It debuted at number four on The New York Times bestseller list. The second novel in the series is set to come out in the U.S. next fall. For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.
MONTAGNE: A single white flower from an anonymous sender is how the mystery begins. Read an excerpt and a review at npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And I'm Ari Shapiro.