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Playing by the Book

It takes more than talent to become a best-selling novelist. Timing, marketing, and luck are also key. For Carolyn Parkhurst, they all fell into place with The Dogs of Babel.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Neil Swidey
Globe Staff / August 17, 2003

This is what it's like when you're Carolyn Parkhurst, on tour to promote your first novel, The Dogs of Babel. This is what it's like when you're the publishing industry's newest flavor of the season.

You will be hustled through eight cities in nine days, to read the same two excerpts from your book, often to gatherings of 10 or 20 or, on a great night, 40 people. You will be asked the same questions, often in the same order, at each reading, all posed by people confident they're the only ones to have ever wondered how you found a publisher, or how you came up with the idea of a book about a widower teaching his dog to talk, or how you chose to write from the perspective of a male narrator.

You will need to respond to each query with gee-whiz delight, as in "Hmmm, that's an interesting question . . ." For instance, in less than 36 hours, you will be asked no fewer than seven times if you have a dog at home. You will get the same two-pronged reaction when you answer: can-you-believe-that chuckles after you confess that you don't; head-shaking awwwws after you explain that your Shetland sheepdog died midway through the writing process.

You will spend more time in shopping malls than a heavily made-up ninth-grader in hip-huggers. You will trudge past Kay Jewelers and the Hallmark Store and Foxy Nails and GNC, all to get to a Waldenbooks or a Borders to sign three, six, or a dozen copies of your book, all so a weary clerk can slap an "Autographed Copy" sticker on the cover in the hopes that it will goose sales.

You will log a lot of miles in the back seat of a car listening to your hired "author escort" ramble about the granite countertops she is having installed in her kitchen and her granddaughter's ability to ape the choreography from the movie Chicago and John Travolta's credentials as an aviator and the subtle plot points in reruns of The Nanny.

You will be asked on camera by a Korean television crew in Manhattan what you think of Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography, which you have not read. You will be forced to wait at the information counter at a Borders that consumes an entire block in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, while a guy named Dan, wearing sideburns and khaki shorts that are both unnaturally long, tends to everyone but you. Since you grew up in Waltham, when you show up for your reading in Brookline, the crowd will be thickened with many of your relatives, who will sneak in compliments masquerading as questions. (Your grandmother will raise her hand and say, "I understand the movie rights have been sold.")

And then you will walk into a bookstore in Minneapolis and meet Beth, a large woman with funky red hair and denim overalls, and she will tell you this: "You're living many people's dream -- and many of them work here." And you will smile, knowingly, because it was only a couple of years ago that you were on the other side of the counter, stocking shelves at B. Dalton and wondering what separated you from all the people whose names were embossed on the book jackets that passed through your hands. And even today, you're still not exactly sure how you made it to the other side.

What you do know is that you wrote an imaginative, gripping piece of fiction. But so have other writers. Yet for you the stars aligned. You got the all-important early buzz. And then Anna Quindlen, the biggest "big mouth" in publishing this side of Oprah -- it really is a term of admiration -- went on the Today show and gave The Dogs of Babel the biggest honking endorsement she's given a book since The Lovely Bones. That novel, which she raved about on Today a year earlier, has refused to budge from the top-10 list ever since.

But you're smart enough to know that, even with all that going for you, you're still not guaranteed to make the New York Times bestseller list. You know that if you don't, given all your publisher has riding on you, you're doomed to be seen as damaged goods. It won't matter that you're only 32 and this is your first book. In today's book business, you're either a bestseller or you're a nobody. Publishers have become so reliant on breakout hits that they are willing to gamble big on a couple each season, giving them everything they've got in terms of publicity and marketing and influence. Some will make it, determining the novels that book clubs from Tacoma to Tewksbury will read this year. Many won't, and those unlucky authors will join the swollen ranks at the bottom of the list, left to fend for themselves. It's no fun down there.

Then your author escort pulls the car into the parking lot of the massive Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, and your cellphone rings, and it's your publicist, and seated in the back with your legs crossed and one foot vibrating rapidly, you hear the news that allows you to exhale for what seems like the first time in weeks. "Hey, you guys," you announce to the escort and your editor. "My book is going to be number 14 on next Sunday's New York Times bestseller list!"

And there is a huge, unmovable grin on your face as you stride into the nation's largest mall to sign the nine copies of your book in stock at Barnes & Noble. You're still wearing it as you exit the store and walk past the three-story-tall Snoopy and the Ripsaw Rollercoaster and Paul Bunyan's Log Chute in the 7-acre indoor amusement park.

As you hurry back to the car and head to the next bookstore, the calls come from your agent and publisher in quick succession, and they congratulate you, and then they both say the same thing: I'm sure your book will soon move up higher on the bestseller list. You wish you had more than 10 minutes to savor the achievement of getting on the bestseller list of The New York Times. But you nod in agreement and hope they're right. Except you still don't know how you've gotten this far.

Walk into any big Barnes & Noble or Borders, and in addition to $3.75 cafe mochas and the racks of Beyonce CDs, they'll stock about 150,000 book titles -- new releases, classics, and everything in between. Coincidentally, that's roughly the number of new titles and editions that the US book industry published last year.

Now imagine if that big chain bookstore had no sections, no signs, no enlarged reprints of favorable reviews, no seasonal displays, no bays reserved for bestsellers, no shelves devoted to "Beach Reads" or "The Book That Brought Back Oprah's Book Club" or even book recommendations based on astrological signs. (The Dogs of Babel is suggested for Geminis.)

Imagine just a giant, indecipherable mass of books in the center of the room. That would be the publishing industry without marketing.

The idea is to make certain books stand out so a whole lot more people buy them, especially women, who account for three-quarters of fiction sales. Sure, the regulars will spend the time to ferret out the gems salted away in the back stacks. But the vast majority of the customers want to come in and quickly locate the title they're looking for or get some reassurance that their $21.95 investment is a sound one.

There have always been brand names in the book business. Long before the adman-turned-author James Patterson (Beach House, The Lake House) there was James Michener (Alaska, Hawaii). The difference now is one of magnitude. In 1975, the top-selling work of fiction was E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. It sold about 230,000 hard-cover copies. The top-selling novel of 2000 was John Grisham's The Brethren. It sold nearly 3 million hard-cover copies. In June, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold 5 million copies in just its first day out.

Back in Ragtime's day, publishers had something called a "midlist" -- where modest-selling but well-reviewed titles lived, with the expectation that their authors could grow slowly with each subsequent novel. Midlist books got their slice of the publicity pie. Now, the midlist is being starved to death, says Gayle Feldman, author of a new Columbia University study on the publishing industry, titled Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975-2002. "There have always been haves and have-nots, but now there are a lot more have-nots."

Publishers still place small bets on no-name authors, tossing a bunch of them low five-figure advances and then hurling them all against the wall to see who will stick. If one of these books takes off, the payoff is huge. But many publishers have taken the considerable resources that used to go into sustaining midlist authors and redirected them to improving the odds for their top bets. They use the money to pay huge advances for "hot" properties, fund ad campaigns and author tours, and buy preferred space in bookstores.

The divide between the top tier and the rest of the list in the $27-billion-a-year, ever-consolidating book business yawns more widely each year, as the newest players in bookselling accumulate more influence. In 2002, about 13 percent of book sales took place at warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's Club and mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target, according to Ipsos BookTrends. (Bookstores -- both chains and independents -- now account for only 38 percent of sales.) And in this summer of sizzling bestsellers, these big discounters are estimated to have sold more than half of all copies of the season's blockbuster trio: Harry Potter, Hillary Clinton's Living History, and the Oprah Winfrey-revived classic East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

These companies that move massive amounts of product have neither the space nor the interest in nurturing "quiet" books. There are no author readings at Costco. Barnes & Noble has for some time been painted by independent booksellers as the big bad chain out to blow their bookshelves down. Yet, in June, Barnes & Noble's chief executive complained to The New York Times that publishers were giving unfair advantages to mass merchandisers that pile up bestsellers "like toothpaste." Can the repackaging of Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores as quaint booksellers be that far off?

Carolyn Parkhurst was an only child, and when she was 2, her parents separated. When she was 3, she wrote her first book -- dictating to her mother a story called "The Table Family." It revolved around a family of tables and their conflicts with a family of tree leaves. In the end, they all worked things out by going shopping in self-driving cars. Parkhurst worked things out by spending a lot of time reading -- and inventing her own stories. (She also watched a lot of TV, which may explain why she can still rattle off all the spinoffs to All in the Family without stopping for a breath.) Growing up in Waltham, she loved to read so much that she says she can't recall ever playing outside "willingly" as a child. She attended private schools -- Belmont Day School and then the Winsor School in Boston.

When she was 15, she got a gig writing record reviews for a teen magazine called Star Hits. She was a tough critic. The band Timbuk 3 hit it big in the 1980s with the single "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades"; Parkhurst called the group's album "cornpone sludge."

She majored in English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she met her future husband, Evan Rosser. They moved to Washington, D.C., and eventually married. She worked in a bookstore for several years, then got her master's in creative writing from American University. She began writing The Dogs of Babel after she unearthed something she had written as an exercise for one of her graduate courses. It was about the field of "canine linguistics" and its most celebrated cases, such as the 16th-century woman from Lyon, France, who suckled her dog, dressed him in nighties, and taught him how to talk. Of course, there is no field of canine linguistics. It was all fiction -- though Parkhurst had written it with the seriousness of an academic journal paper.

Until that point, all of Parkhurst's writings were 15 pages or less, but she always knew she had a novel in her. Her rediscovery of the talking-dog treatise provided the spark. As it turns out, her novel is really about grief, communication, and how little we really know the ones we love. The premise is that a linguist's wife plunges to her death from a giant apple tree, and, desperate to know if it was an accident or suicide, he turns to the only witness, their Rhodesian Ridgeback, named Lorelei. To unlock the mystery, he decides to teach the dog to talk.

Parkhurst's moving novel is both elegantly textured and eminently readable. But here's the thing: It's also got a great hook. You can sum it up in a sentence, as in "A guy tries to teach his dog to talk so he can understand how his wife died." And if you feel it's necessary, you can add a follow-up: "But I swear it's not kitsch -- it's a beautiful literary novel."

Parkhurst may not have known it at the time she conceived the story, but that combination gave her an enormous advantage over all the other beautiful literary novels vying for attention. "The story summarizes well -- quite intriguingly," says Michael Pietsch, Parkhurst's 46-year-old publisher at Little, Brown & Co. "With it, you can get people's attention quickly."

Before she got it to Little, Brown, however, Parkhurst had to find an agent. This can be difficult for many new authors, given the quandary that operates in the industry: Although most publishers deal only with authors represented by an agent, it's hard to find an agent if you haven't already been published (or been the subject of front-page headlines).

On January 10, 2002, at 5 p.m., Parkhurst put the finishing touches on her manuscript. Eight hours later, she went into labor, delivering a baby boy, Henry. (This detail would prove useful for future publicity, since most of the early press on Parkhurst mentioned it.)

About two months later, she put the burp cloths down long enough to write to a bunch of agents. All but one either ignored her or sent back "no thanks" form letters. But Douglas Stewart, a 32-year-old agent with the Manhattan firm Curtis Brown Ltd., was so taken with her excerpt that he asked her to send the whole manuscript. Because Parkhurst had mentioned in her letter a friend they had in common, her query had gone into his preferred pile rather than his tower of unsolicited manuscripts.

In May 2002, Parkhurst signed with Stewart (he gets 15 percent of her take), and then he sent her manuscript to editors at several major publishing houses. Two editors turned it down. A third said she liked it but that after reading it, she was so drained she left work early and went to bed. It would be too upsetting for her to work on, she concluded. (Some dog lovers have a hard time reading the sections in the book about an underground society that performs grisly surgeries on dogs to make their palates more humanlike.)

And then there was Asya Muchnick. The tall, 28-year-old editor at Little, Brown, who grew up in Framingham and went to Harvard and has a flair for the dramatic, began reading the manuscript on the subway ride home from her Manhattan office. As she tells it, when she got home, she ignored her husband and went straight to their bedroom, staying up until she finished Parkhurst's manuscript. When she did, she was so moved, so convinced that the book was going to be the Next Big Thing, that she called Parkhurst's agent. At 1 in the morning. He was not at the office. She left a tearful message saying that she simply had to have the manuscript. Agents love those kinds of calls.

When an agent thinks he has a hot property, he holds an auction. An auction isn't really an auction, with a barker calling out prices and a frenzied crowd tossing out escalating bids. Instead, an agent tells a bunch of editors from various publishing houses that they need to submit their bids by a certain date, and then, through phone calls and e-mail, he takes them through rounds of bidding until the best deal emerges.

There was no auction for The Dogs of Babel for two reasons. First, no one besides Muchnick expressed interest in it, much less cried over it. Second, Muchnick had succeeded in persuading her bosses at Little, Brown to make an attractive "preempt" offer to close the deal before any kind of auction.

The whole negotiation process in publishing is fueled by perceptions. The Little, Brown people were convinced they needed to act before one of their competitors snatched up Parkhurst's manuscript, so they put together a package they hoped would persuade her to choose them. Meanwhile, no other houses showed any strong interest in the manuscript until Parkhurst's agent told them that Little, Brown was dying to have it (without specifying the terms of its offer).

In the end, Parkhurst signed with Little, Brown for an advance that she says fell somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000. That's a whole lot more than most first-time novelists get, though a whole lot less than the half-million-dollar checks that some newcomers have been handed after heated bidding wars. Then again, a huge advance can become an albatross for a new writer, since it's exceedingly difficult for authors who aren't household names to generate the sales needed for the publisher to earn back its outlay. While the writers don't have to give the money back, the stain of disappointment can be permanent, often forcing authors back into the hunt to find a new publisher for the next book. Still, a big advance means a publisher has no choice but to work hard to earn it back. So, for new authors, the trick is finding that sweet spot -- an advance big enough to guarantee attention but not unrealistic expectations.

Because of some of the early deals involving foreign rights and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Parkhurst had nearly earned Little, Brown its advance back even before her book was released. Now she can breathe easy, knowing each hard-cover sale is on the plus side -- and puts about $3 in her pocket (minus her agent's commission). This has become the new math in her life: "For an hour of my baby sitter's time, I need to sell four books."

At many stops on Parkhurst's tour, after the do-you-have-a-dog question, someone compares her book to The Lovely Bones. The Alice Sebold novel has not come out in paperback yet because it is still one of the top 10 bestsellers in hard-cover a year after its release. The books are profoundly different, but there are a few important similarities. Both are about grief. Both were published by Little, Brown, edited by Muchnick, and were released in the summer. Most important, both are beautiful literary novels that have a hook -- quiet books that Little, Brown was committed to making a lot of noise about. (In Bones, a murdered 14-year-old narrates the book from heaven.)

Compared with the bigger names in publishing, Little, Brown has a relatively small list of titles -- about 50 new adult trade books in hard-cover each year. That means it can really focus. Henry Dunow, Sebold's agent, says Little, Brown was determined to give Bones everything it had, from printing extra advance copies to working the industry and mainstream press to ponying up for advertising and preferred placement in stores.

The sales representatives for the AOL Time Warner Book Group, which Little, Brown is part of, chose The Lovely Bones to be their "rep recommends" selection for the summer 2002 season. For this summer, they chose The Dogs of Babel. Though no one expects to repeat the phenomenal sales of Bones, singling out Dogs telegraphs to booksellers how much the house is behind it. The AOL Time Warner field reps sell the titles from 16 different publishing houses and imprints. On each sales call, they have to go through hundreds of new books. It makes a big difference if they can highlight a couple and describe them in wording that could fit on a bumper sticker.

At each stage of the process -- from agents to editors to sales reps to buyers to industry press to mainstream press to store clerks to customers -- someone is looking for cues from someone else about how far out on a limb to go. If a house plays its cards right, the whole thing can quickly become an echo chamber. While Little, Brown is known for the august reputation it has been nurturing since its founding in Boston in 1837, Pietsch, its current publisher, has acknowledged just how much the house has learned about packaging books from its most profitable author, that former adman and now best-selling machine that the critics love to hate, James Patterson. Little, Brown's art director, Mario Pulice, says Patterson once had him produce more than 40 book-jacket designs before he found the one he was sure would sell the best. (Pulice's record for rejected jackets came at his last job, when John Grisham turned his thumb down 80 times.)

Sometimes, even when a publishing house puts all the weight of its machinery behind a book, the chosen one can sputter and conk out. At the same time that Little, Brown was gearing up for Dogs, its sister house, Warner Books, had decided that Blessed Are the Cheesemakers, a first novel by Sarah-Kate Lynch, would be its "make book" of the season. To drive that point home, Karen Torres, vice president of sales and marketing for the AOL Time Warner Book Group, sent each of her top booksellers a cheese plate. "Thing is, everybody loved the cheese, but not the book," says Torres, who has thick brown hair she holds back with her sunglasses, and an even thicker Bronx accent. The book curdled. "It happens. What do I do? I pick up and move on."

That's exactly what Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer for 900 Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton stores, did with one of her recent big bets, The Fabulist, pity-me-plagiarist Stephen Glass's thinly novelized account of his downfall. Because bookstores can return unsold books, their only real risks are wasting shelf space on duds and eating the shipping costs when sending them back to the publisher. Still, Hensley says, "having a book out there that's not working is like having a stone in your shoe." Speaking a month after the release of The Fabulist, Hensley says with a chuckle, "That stone has been removed."

Bridget Mason is Hensley's counterpart at Borders. Despite their occasional miscalculations, both are seen as people who can help make or break a book. Hensley gave a critical early push to current blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, despite the modest sales that the author, Dan Brown, had posted with his first three books. Mason, who buys for 415 Borders stores, was a pivotal early supporter of The Dogs of Babel. Sitting in a lounge in Borders' corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor, she explains in a soft voice how she winnows the field from the hundreds of manuscripts she sees every month. "I listen for rep favorites -- things that are getting excitement within the publishing house. Hotly contested auctions. Titles for which there's a lot of organic buzz."

Besides the sales-rep attention, what explains the Dogs of Babel buzz that found its way to Mason's ears? It came from feature stories in January in Publishers Weekly and Book magazine that tapped Parkhurst as a new novelist to watch. It came from the inclusion of Dogs in the February Esquire's list of "34 Reasons to Be Optimistic About 2003." (Parkhurst's book came in at the number-20 slot, well behind "Five hours of Carrie-Anne Moss in tight black rubber" but ahead of the fact that "Dom Perignon is releasing its great 1995 vintage.") And it came from a host of other "hits" that Alison Vandenberg, Parkhurst's 29-year-old publicist at Little, Brown, managed to score through networking, e-mailing, telephoning, taking Manhattan journalists to lunch, and getting bound galleys of the book into as many influential hands as possible. A copy of every "hit" was then sent to the top booksellers. (Besides, Mason says, she and others at Borders simply loved Parkhurst's book.)

All this attention helped Dogs overcome earlier setbacks. There had been bad reviews in two of the four industry publications. (Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews panned it in their review sections, but Booklist and Library Journal gave it raves, as would most of the mainstream press.) In addition, Parkhurst says that although her editor and agent sent out requests to an enormous list of notable authors seeking endorsements to go on the back of her book, "nobody would blurb me." Actually, two authors agreed. Parkhurst then went to two of her former professors at American, who also happen to be novelists, to round out the blurb roster.

But who needs blurbs when you have Anna Quindlen? In addition to her regular appearances on the Today show, Quindlen, a best-selling author in her own right, is one of four judges for the Book-of-the-Month Club, the nation's most established mail-order book club.

Ever since she was credited with helping to send The Lovely Bones into the sales stratosphere, Quindlen has been getting swamped with manuscripts and bound galleys, about 300 a year. She says she gives them each 25 to 30 pages to hook her. She recalls that with Dogs, "I sat down on the porch, and 4 hours later I had finished it." To make sure she wasn't nuts, she made her three teenagers and anyone who came to visit her read it. They all loved it, too. She recommended it as a main selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club, which means it would be automatically sent to the club's roughly 750,000 members. (If 15 percent of them agree to keep it, that's a big success.) And when the Today show called and asked her to come on the air and recommend a book in February, Quindlen says, "I asked them if I could wait until June so I could thump The Dogs of Babel."

A year before her book was published, Parkhurst read an interview with Quindlen in which she said, "These three things I love: writing books, reading books, and helping books." Parkhurst thought to herself, with just a touch of hopelessness: "Oh, help me!"

It's late June, and I am sitting next to Parkhurst on a 6 a.m. flight to Detroit. As usual, she is sharp and funny, even in the bleary-eyed haze of early-morning air travel. Midway through the flight, she turns to me and says, "It's a weird turn that my life has taken. It's everything I had hoped for." Then she adds with a smile, "That's a little alarming." The frenetic pace of her national book tour leaves little time for reflecting on achievements, but hers are considerable. The Dogs of Babel would go on to spend five weeks on the New York Times list of top 15 bestsellers (two weeks in the top 10). It has about 200,000 copies in print (not counting mail-order book club sales) after five printings, and is expected to go into its sixth printing soon.

The beauty of the bestseller list is that it can be self-perpetuating. Since most stores discount bestsellers and keep them near the front of the store, they're much more likely to rack up additional sales and stay on the list.

Our conversation eventually drifts to a topic most writers are more comfortable discussing: insecurity about the future. "I worry about my next book, that it won't sell as well if it doesn't have the same hook," Parkhurst says. She has written about 25 pages of her second novel, which, she explains, is about a mother-and-daughter relationship, with television playing a supporting role. She grimaces slightly, as if to acknowledge that it won't provide quite the bumper-sticker-summary wallop that she enjoyed with a book about a grieving husband trying to teach a dog to talk.

During a lull in the conversation, I return to the copy of USA Today that is resting on my tray table. It features a photo of Kelly Clarkson with her arms wrapped about Justin Guarini, the two Nielsen-drawing darlings of last year's American Idol. They were trying to drum up attention for their beach party movie, which is so bad the studio didn't let critics see it ahead of time and whose box office numbers plunged 80 percent in its second week.

Second acts are tough.

Of course, Carolyn Parkhurst is a gifted writer, not a magnet for the teenybopper set. Still, she points out, "there's a long history of people having trouble with their second novels." The sophomore jinx has tripped up many authors whose debuts drew raves and made the cash registers sing. Then again, others have managed to beat it. Besides, Parkhurst's second novel is a long way off. She still has to ride out the wave of sales and readings and media attention for The Dogs of Babel.

If her book ever makes it to the big screen -- the production team behind the Harry Potter movies has signed on -- she'll be hit with even more publicity and interviews (and money). She's surprised herself at how quickly she has taken to this new world.

I decide to switch the topic. "Hey, I'm just curious," I say. "Do you have a dog?"

Her head is tilted down, so she can't see me smiling, and she begins to shake it back and forth. "I don't," she begins, in the polite but somewhat weary tones I have heard many times before. "I had one but he -- "

She jerks her head up and laughs.

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached at swidey@globe.com.

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