July 26, 2010

Aftermath of a marketing campaign: Indie champions of the West


Perhaps the key component of our word of mouth marketing strategy for Every Man Dies Alone has been outreach to indie booksellers. Not that chain retailers haven’t turned out to be equally important to the success of the book. Indeed, Borders was the first to order massive quantities of the paperback for display, and someone at Barnes & Noble has clearly fallen in love with the book, promoting it aggressively with non-stop, prime, in-store-location displays. That faith in the book has made B&N our sales leader — by far. And when the nation’s biggest retailer stands by a book like that, it makes everyone else take notice.

But it has always been our belief that it would take a network of smaller champions across the nation for this book to really sink in — to penetrate the literary marketplace as fully as possible and ultimately enter the canon. Thus, from the outset, publishers Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians conducted a non-stop outreach to the people who’d always supported our not-so-obviously-commercial titles — the indies.

Beginning today, Melville House’s David Kinzer charts the results of that effort via a series of interviews with five different indie booksellers from across the country discussing what selling Every Man Dies Alone has been like for them, and what it represents about the brick and mortar bookselling scene today. (You can read the entire series here.) ….

If I was to say “independent bookstore,” or perhaps simply “bookstore,” Green Apple Books is very nearly what you’d expect: an urban location (San Francisco, in fact), a knowledgeable and passionate staff, just a hint of dust dancing in a sunray, maybe a bearded man haggling over how much his underlined copy of The Prophet is worth, and most importantly of all, shelves upon towering shelves filled with books.

Green Apple is “a classic old bookstore,” said co-owner Kevin Ryan of the 43-year-old location. “It’s easy to get lost, and it’s a great place to lose yourself, especially if you’re open to the serendipity of finding something you weren’t expecting.” That susceptibility to the unexpected is exactly what indie publishers like your very own Melville House had been counting on to help sell unusual books, such as Every Man Dies Alone Our hope was for Every Man to find an audience in stores like Green Apple, where success is based on word-of mouth rather than a big-name or payola.

“I was the first person in the store to read [Every Man ] and I twisted a few colleague’s arms to read it after I did,” said Ryan. “It’s amazing to me that it could have been forgotten for fifty years.” Before long, the whole staff was aggressively handselling the Every Man hardcover. “It was one of the books that stayed on the hardback table right until the paperback came out,” said Ryan.

By then, Ryan developed a well-worn pitch for customers: “It’s a street-level view of life in a totalitarian regime. In this case it’s Hitler’s regime, but I think it’s equally appropriate for modern-day North Korea or Iran. Suspicion and backstabbing and betrayal.”

Ryan shrugged off the suggestion that the book could have trouble finding an audience. “I think it would sell anywhere,” he said. “It’s a piece of literature.”