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Swarmed by Her Novel's Early Buzz

June 24, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of course, 39-year-old Alice Sebold knows that the hyper-buzz about her debut novel is positioning her as the latest literary shooting star. And that her book is taking off, with velocity. But at home in Long Beach, with her husband and dog, Sebold still is back in that place where it's a kick to think that "The Lovely Bones" (Little, Brown) is even being published.

Now, Sebold is trying to get used to the odd, un-writerly orbit of widespread recognition. Her book--lavished with praise from key critics--zipped to a No. 1 ranking on Amazon.com last week and is in its sixth printing. Entertainment Weekly recently dropped by for a photo shoot. Film rights have been optioned, foreign rights wrapped up in eight countries. And the official publication date? July 3. (The book is scheduled to arrive in stores this week.)

"I have to say, it's unreal because the book isn't even out yet

So how did "The Lovely Bones" break away from the pack? (A record 135,000 books were published last year in the U.S., where a new book comes into print nearly every four seconds, according to R.R. Bowker, an industry tracking company.)

It's easier to trace the trajectory of an early buzz if you're a first-time novelist who nailed a $4.2-million advance, the way Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter did for "The Emperor of Ocean Park" (Knopf). Or if Oprah Winfrey taps your first novel for her old book club, the way she did last year with Gwyn Hyman Rubio's "Icy Sparks" (Penguin).

But Sebold is a relatively unknown writer, and "The Lovely Bones" had no such launch. In fact, she acknowledged, the book is hard to describe, let alone pitch. Not that she worried a second about the marketing, said Sebold, who received a master's degree from UC Irvine's highly regarded creative writing program in 1998.

"When you're writing a book about a dead girl from heaven," she noted dryly, "you don't really expect they're going to publish it, so...."

Sebold began writing "The Lovely Bones" at Irvine. The novel is written in the voice of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who has been raped and murdered by a neighbor. From heaven, which turns out to be a cool place with a ton of romping dogs, she tracks her family, friends and others through the aftermath of her death. "The novel is an elegy," wrote New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, "about a vanquished place and time and the loss of childhood innocence. And it is also a deeply affected meditation."

Word about "The Lovely Bones" began to spread early last year in the New York offices of Little, Brown after an editor read Sebold's partial manuscript. The editor talked up the book, and the manuscript got passed around. "Everybody read it, everybody adored it, and everybody wanted to make it fly," associate publisher Sophie Cottrell said.

Among the passionate backers were the sales director and her staff, who gave booksellers an early heads-up. A few influential readers, including the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, got hold of a partial manuscript and became fans. Little, Brown then distributed 3,000 advance copies to key booksellers and contacts. (By comparison, Farrar, Straus & Giroux had distributed 3,500 early copies for Jonathan Franzen's bestseller, "The Corrections," one of last year's most hyped and acclaimed books.) The reaction was quick and passionate. Booksellers started reservation lists.

Sebold's editor, publisher Michael Pietsch, heard from one of his sales representatives that a rival Random House colleague was telling his clients to read "The Lovely Bones." "That kind of thing kept happening and happening after our sales force went wild," said Pietsch, the noted editor of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."

Sebold's book is a "breathtaking accomplishment," Pietsch said, and he wanted to speed it into the hands of readers. "The marketing plan was not a shove-it-down-the-throat campaign," he said. "We wanted people to fall in love with the book itself. The campaign was about creating word of mouth."

National ads were placed. Seventeen magazine signed up for first serial rights. And in early May, the marketing staff sent Sebold to the BookExpo America in New York, the annual buzz-making publishing convention.

By the time Sebold arrived at BookExpo, demand for "The Lovely Bones" was so great that Little, Brown reprinted galleys for the first time. To Sebold's amazement, people lined up to get their copies signed. "I mean, the fact that I was even there at all" astonished her, she said.

Two weeks later, Anna Quindlen, in a "Today Show" piece on summer reading, said of "The Lovely Bones": "It's one of the best novels that I've read in years," and the buzz crossed over into the mainstream.

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