How to make a bestseller

I was still reading the plain-covered advance copy of "Peace Like a River," when I heard that it was on the bestseller list. For a book-section editor, this is like watching the presidential debates when the election results come in.

How could a first novel by an unknown writer appear at No. 13 on the BookSense hardcover fiction list before any major reviews or ads had appeared?

Of course, the quality of the book belongs to its author, Leif Enger (see review, page 14). But the book's pre-instant success belongs to Atlantic Monthly Press and its ability to create sophisticated buzz amid the industry's publicity din.

Almost a year ago, I met editor Elisabeth Schmitz in her office in New York. The wunderkind of literary fiction has a kind of casual elegance that made me feel more rustic than usual. Graciously trying to fill the blank pauses and ignore my staring, she asked if I attended the industry book fair in Frankfurt. "No," I replied stupidly, "I don't speak French." She never batted an eye.

Her first acquisition as senior editor for Atlantic was a debut novel called "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, which won the National Book Award in 1998. She went on to acquire another first novel called "In the Fall," by Jeffrey Lent, one of the best novels of 2000. When she said to watch out for "Peace Like a River," I took notice.

Her boss, publisher Morgan Entrekin, is a bigger-than-life figure with a mane of gray hair and that Gatsbyesque quality of talking to you as though you're the most important person in the universe.

His first love is literary fiction, those fine novels that, even in this age of giant chains, live or die on

the tastes of independent booksellers. They're quixotic folk who manage to wed a love of literature with an accountant's realism.

Mr. Entrekin - Morgan, to everyone - courts these independents with famously gracious author parties, meals that would eat up a week's revenue at a struggling bookstore.

Nobody works the system quite as effectively as Atlantic Monthly Press when they've got a title they believe in. Select reviewers and buyers received plain-covered copies of "Peace Like a River" back in May. At the American Booksellers Association in Chicago this June, the buzz was already rumbling among the 35,000 attendees.

Mr. Enger was set for a book signing at 11, but by 10:30, the line was already daunting. This for an author no one had heard of. Atlantic Monthly Press distributed another 1,000 advance copies to booksellers, ran out, and had to print up 2,500 more after the convention. So, before the novel appeared in its final form, more than 5,000 copies of the story were already in circulation with avid readers - more copies than most publishers could hope to sell for a first novel.

That "Peace Like a River" bounded immediately to No. 13 on the BookSense bestseller list is a testament to the continuing influence of those independent bookstores and their trust in Mr. Entrekin. They're keeping alive the quaint practice of "handselling" to customers who know and trust them.

But, of course, it's still about the quality of the book. Random House can (and does) throw author parties 10 times larger than Atlantic Monthly's get-togethers. Some giant publishers send out eight copies of a single title to every reviewer in hopes of blaring over the competition. But none of that works if you don't have "Peace Like a River."

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