The Hidden Symphony Behind a Book’s Success

By Adrienne Fontaine, publicist


A friend of mine recently sent me the link to a New York Observer article on Adelle Waldman’s debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I had given this friend my copy of the book, thinking that she might also enjoy reading a book that so adeptly winks at Brooklyn’s literary and intelligentsia-types. We haven’t had the opportunity to chat about it, but based on the Observer article, it seems as though everyone else is chatting about it for us.

The article uses the book as an example of “how a debut novel broke through.” The book’s promotion has been so successful that people have been referencing the name “Nathaniel P.” when talking about a certain kind of young, precocious man. As the article states, the book hits a nerve about the psyches and contemporary mores of highly educated males in a certain gentrified area of New York. I myself had heard of the book from Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air. Corrigan raved about the book, saying that she wanted to read it again just to absorb some of the cleverness that she may have missed.

The rest of the article explains “how a relatively low-key, conventional-sounding novel from a debut author of no particular renown, writing in nothing if not a crowded literary field (yet another novel from Brooklyn about itself), managed to become not just a publishing sensation but a cultural touchstone.”

Which is a good question for debut novels and publicists in general.

It turns out that The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.’s success lies mostly with the obvious:  a good manuscript, a skilled agent, thorough revisions, and a great editor who gets a publishing house excited about a book and knows the power of word-of-mouth. The early reviews weren’t that stellar, but the book’s publicist James Meader (publicist at large at Henry Holt, the book’s publisher) knew to think outside the typical boxes.

First, the book is fiction written by a woman, which doesn’t bode well with male readers, so Meader and the book’s editor Barbara Jones sent copies to women on the GQ staff in order to get the word out to men (GQ ended up running a review). They also knew to promote to peers through old-school “hand-selling” and to send books to other publishing houses, a tactic that is obvious but rarely used.

Finally, Jones understood the power of celebrity well enough to know that they should send books to famous authors, including Jonathan Franzen and Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney, who tweeted laudatory remarks. The story goes that coverage pretty much erupted from there. PR plans for the paperpack include the author going on a “national tour of hipster enclaves.”

It’s a great example of a PR and marketing plan creatively and smartly executed. Sending out a large mass mailing of galleys and review copies isn’t the answer… It’s who you give them to and how you give them out. And not only that, each member of the author’s publishing team, from the agent to the publisher to publicist to the editor, must use their skills and past experiences to help make the book a hit. In addition the team must nudge the entire publishing industry, the world beyond traditional media, to embrace the book.

Who knows if The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. will stand the test of time or it ends up being just another book lost to the trend winds. Regardless, the publishing muscle that lifted this book up into the national conversation is one to emulate.



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