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Publisher Getting the Word Out Early on Its New Novelist

November 25, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

A familiar lament among authors is that their publishers didn't support them with adequate advertising, distribution or publicity. They complain that their books came--and went--and the reading public was not made to notice or care.

A familiar challenge among publishers is figuring out how to introduce the work of an unknown author so that readers will want to seek out the book amid crowded shelves and, best of all, recommend it to others.

Based on the amount of hustle expended on her behalf so far, Los Angeles author Maria Amparo Escandon may not become jaded by her first publishing experience. In addition, the troops at Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, probably will end up satisfied that they did just about everything to turn her first novel, "Esperanza's Box of Saints," into better-than-first-novel sales after its January release.

"Esperanza" is a breeze-to-read story of deeply religious faith, passionate love and family ties in the life of a young Mexican widow who learns in a kitchen apparition from a saint that her daughter did not die after routine surgery, even though a casket was lowered into the ground.

One of Scribner's grass-roots measures has been to introduce "Esperanza" to the kind of avid readers who would seem likely to appreciate the book's rare combination of literary sensibility and commercial appeal. Although publishers routinely distribute galley copies of a book before publication to booksellers, reviewers and others in the media, it is far less common to put them in the hands of consumers who also might help get a buzz going. In one such instance, members of a reading group that meets monthly at Borders Books & Music in New York received galley copies of "Esperanza" before 15 of them gathered recently to discuss the novel.

"I loved it," Jane Verdrager, an instructor in adult literacy, said after last week's meeting. She liked the book's imagery, its sense of humor and the main character's poignant sense of faith. More important to Scribner, Verdrager already has begun to recommend the novel to friends and colleagues.

"Esperanza" also has been discussed at Dutton's Brentwood Books in Los Angeles, the Tattered Cover in Denver and in other reading groups around the country, some of which have been promised a reading by the author and a reception with her after the book goes on sale.

Generating early interest in a book has become more and more common in the publishing industry as titles vie for attention in superstores' miles of aisles. Penguin Putnam Inc., for example, went so far as to put two unknown novelists, Iain Pears ("An Instance of the Fingerpost") and Janice Graham ("Firebird"), on the road to stores long before their books came out last summer. Pears' travels in particular were credited with familiarizing booksellers with his novel, which went on to become a national bestseller.

At Scribner, there have been weekly strategy meetings focusing solely on the marketing of "Esperanza" since the imprint acquired the book for six figures in a busy auction in February. Key to the effort is that Scribner plans to publish the novel as an oversize paperback, a so-called trade paperback, which is a format commonly used to reprint a novel but rarely used to introduce one. Scribner, the publisher of Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") and Stephen King ("Bag of Bones"), has originated a novel in trade paperback only once before.

As explained by Mark Gompertz, Simon & Schuster's publisher of trade paperbacks, the company decided on the format for "Esperanza" in the belief that a more affordable list price of $12 a copy might prompt booksellers to place larger orders than they probably would have for a first novel by an unknown author in hardcover (at $20 to $25 a copy). The price hunch alone appears to have paid off so far; orders have been strong enough for Scribner to plan a first printing of 40,000 copies, which would be about four times the size given a typical first novel in hardcover.

With artistic covers and knockabout portability, novels in trade paperback also offer a hard-to-measure hipness factor dating within the industry to "Bright Lights, Big City," Jay McInerney's hot first novel of urban angst. The book ran up huge sales after it debuted as a Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback in 1984.

"There's a large generation of us who grew up with trade paperbacks and read novels in trade paperback during college," Gompertz said.

Meanwhile, the author is doing her part to help the marketing and promotion effort. Among other contributions, Escandon bought in Mexico and shipped to Scribner Spanish prayer cards and other quaint religious mementos that the publisher included with bound galley copies of the novel in a "box of saints," sent to select booksellers and journalists. Escandon also was instrumental in obtaining a valuable blurb from Laura Esquivel, author of "Like Water for Chocolate," to which "Esperanza" has been compared.

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