Monday, April 19, 2010

The Little Book That Could

I'm a sucker for Cinderella stories.

I think what appeals to me is that I see them as the universe readjusting the scales by letting the little guy win one once in a while. My sense of balance is satisfied.

I felt that way last Monday when the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced. The winner was Paul Harding's Tinkers for which he'd been paid a grand advance of $1,000.

What made Harding's win so remarkable was, first, that it was a debut novel. Second, it was published by Bellevue Literary Press--described by the Wall Street Journal here as a "tiny imprint":
To call it a surprise that Bellevue published a Pulitzer-winning novel — the first small press to do so since Louisiana State University Press published “A Confederacy of Dunces” in 1981 — is a vast understatement. The imprint, which was founded in 2005, is part of New York University’s School of Medicine and specializes in books that explore the convergence of science and the arts.
The win is even more remarkable when you realize that Bellevue releases a total of just eight books a year--with only two of them in the fiction category. The original print run of Tinkers was just 3,500 copies.

In January here, The New Yorker described the novel as:
[dipping] "in and out of the consciousness of a New England patriarch named George Washington Crosby as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room ... The story traces Crosby’s life back to his hardscrabble Maine childhood, where his father was a tinker and travelling salesman who suffered from epileptic seizures. Crosby’s emotional life is dominated by his father’s abandonment of the family on learning that his wife was planning to have him institutionalized ..."
The New York Times failed to review the novel before it won the Pulitzer, but made up for that neglect by a story in yesterday's edition here. Among the revelations, "[a]ccording to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, Tinkers sold 7,000 copies before the Pulitzer announcement."

My favorite of the Tinkers articles was one in The Boston Globe here that described the novel's journey to winning the Pulitzer. Essentially the book's profile grew by old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

Erika Goldman, Editorial Director of Bellevue, met Michael Coffey, the co-editor of Publishers Weekly (PW), for lunch and gave him a galley of the novel. In September, 2008, Coffey gave the novel a starred review in PW, saying:
The real star is Harding's language, which dazzles whether he's describing the workings of clocks, sensory images of nature, the many engaging side characters who populate the book, or even a short passage on how to build a bird nest. This is an especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship.
Meanwhile, in northern California, a sales representative for a group of small presses encouraged independent bookstores to purchase the novel. According to The Boston Globe, the buying director for one of those bookstores "passed the book to John Freeman, who featured Tinkers as one of the best books of the year on National Public Radio ..."

The last time I remember such an upbeat story about word-of-mouth growing an audience for a book was for Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon. I told that story back in August, 2006 here.

I just love happy endings.

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