f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Buy the Hype?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, July 18, 2005

Buy the Hype?

One of the "hottest" books of the summer (besides HP) is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. It's been reviewed hither and yon. Word that Little, Brown anted up 2 million for it has become somewhat common knowledge. It's number 2 on the NYTimes list and has been there for four weeks. It has, in other words, "buzz." (Or at least as much buzz as a book can generate these days.)

"Buzz" and a nickel won't get you very far in terms of whether the story is actually any good. Rather it tells you that the book has a strong hook (in this case, "Dracula lives!") and strong potential, (in this case, "Anne Rice + DaVinci Code = sales") to justify the advance and subsequent advertising/promotional dollars for a first time author.

Publishing philosophies and strategies are wildly divergent from house to house. There are some houses that believe in establishing an author with a great book, hoping that some reasonable audience will find it and support it. More books will follow and the audience will grow. That's called "building an author." One of my favs, Richard Russo, is a perfect example. Granted, his early books weren't ignored, but he wrote four before Empire Falls hit the big time and won both the Pulitzer and likely his largest sales.

"Launching an author" is an entirely different strategy. Big budgets, guerilla marketing, wide-ranging author tours, etc. These all the hallmarks of the author launch. The idea is that bestsellers aren't born, they're made. And that may be true. But it's also a high-risk proposition. A launch that goes down in flames is costly--most often in the amount of money paid up-front to obtain the project. One that pays off, however, covers a multitude of sins.

Publishing houses tend to lean on one of these strategies more than the other. To me a house that balance both seems the most likely to succeed. Knowing which books to launch--saving credibility and "hype" for those books that truly work. But it's a tough business and there are no 100% guarantees.

Which brings us back to The Historian. What will be the final reckoning for it?

Personally, I was disappointed. Standing the book next to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (another book of faux histori-biography to which it compares rather nicely) is an unfair proposition. JSMN blows it away. Sustaining pace is always going to be a problem in such a large tome, and The Historian seizes up right as it should start catapulting forward. It's langorous tour of Europe's off-the-beaten-path tourist destinations may make Rick Steve's twitch in excitement, but you can only stand so many sweeping settings before you become numb. And Kostova seems to have misjudged her pov's, burying for hundreds of pages a key character who I cared for deeply.

JSMN weathered it's hype. Rose above it even. The Historian crumbled beneath it. To me at least. We'll see how much longer it stays on the lists, how many more people fall prey to the "buzz."