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When Blockbuster Books Disappoint, What Then?

Ah, Henry Holt. They had such high hopes for their lead fall title, the literary mystery THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER. And all was going according to plan, what with massive exposure at trade shows (*how* many galleys were given out at BEA? Tons) and prominent paid placement at Barnes & Noble and Borders. All signs were good for a breakout bestseller, right?

Not exactly.

As the WSJ’s Jeff Trachtenberg reports, the $500,000 marketing campaign for Jed Rubenfeld‘s debut novel didn’t quite pan out as hoped, as the book topped out on the NYT list at #18 and will likely net 50,000 hardcover sales, if lucky (or as one publishing insider said to me soon after the book’s release, Holt is “probably considering suicide.”) The culprit? In the paper’s mind, it was THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield, which came out at the same time and was embraced even more enthusiastically by booksellers, especially B&N which made Setterfield’s debut its first pick for B&N Recommends, a program that aims to focus all the stores 40,000 employees on handselling one title.

Other reasons are given as well: too early on promotional efforts; fickle bookselling tastes. You name it, there’s an excuse, but I still think it boils down to my own theory: THE THIRTEENTH TALE was far, far more likely to appeal to female readers. And since women read books in greater quantities than men, the math is easy to do on sales projections.

But even though INTERPRETATION’s less-than-expected results might make the publisher skittish about upcoming fiction titles (which would be a shame, as they have some good spring offerings from Giles Blunt & John “Benjamin Black” Banville) all is not lost. On Sept. 20, when the bad news about INTERPRETION was coming over the transom, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a speech to the United Nations. He held up a copy of Noam Chomsky‘s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” and praised the book, which shot up the Amazon best-seller list, prompting the printing of an additional 50,000 copies to meet demand. Chomsky’s publisher: Henry Holt. You win some, you lose some…

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