In a world in which we're always reading about the hard lessons writers learn, Monday's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had a cautionary tale for publishers (although I suspect the author involved will face his own issues as he seeks a publisher for his next novel).
Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg wrote the story, which was subtitled, "One Publisher Rolls the Dice." He tells of publisher John Sterling's (Henry Holt & Co.) reaction to a debut murder mystery by a Yale Law professor. The manuscript was for "The Interpretation of Murder" by Jed Rubenfeld. The novel speculates about what would have happened if Sigmund Freud had gotten involved in a criminal investigation seeking a serial murderer during the psychoanalyst's visit to the United States in 1909.
The publisher believed the manuscript "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. Rubenfeld's agent, Suzanne Gluck of William Morris, already had an offer of $1.2 million for world-wide rights for the novel. However, Ms. Gluck wanted to sell the overseas rights herself. Instead of taking the first offer, Ms. Gluck accepted an offer from Holt's Sterling for $800,000 for the North American rights alone and then she sold the overseas rights for more than $1 million.
Once he had secured the rights, Mr. Sterling launched a $500,000 marketing campaign and "ordered a first printing of 185,000 copies, an impressive number for any debut novel."
Mr. Sterling "wanted to launch an all-out marketing push . . . 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." Mr. Rubenfeld's book was released on September 5, 2006.
Independent bookstores were enthusiastic, naming the novel their number one pick for September in Book Sense, the national marketing program developed by the American Booksellers Association in 2000.
Despite Holt's best efforts, The Interpretation of Murder's first-week sales ranked it at #18 on the New York Times best-seller list. The following week, it slipped to #20. Several newspapers and magazines, which had been enthusiastic early on gave the book lukewarm reviews.
Mr. Sterling's misery was compounded by another historical novel released a week after The Interpretation of Murder. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield was selected by Barnes and Noble as the first in a new campaign called Barnes and Noble Recommends. Helped by that initiative, the book debuted at #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
The WSJ estimates that Holt would need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies to recoup its investment and doubts that it will manage half of that. At this point, the best the publisher can hope for are strong paperback sales and the possibility that a film will be made from the novel, increasing interest in the book.
Trachtenberg interviewed other publishers in an attempt to determine where Holt went wrong. Several rivals suggested that Holt "may have erred in promoting its book so heavily six months prior to publication." Mr. Sterling, of course, disagrees. He does, however, admit, "I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know . . . It's the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing about the business."
Amen to that.