Lawrence Hill never thought his third novel would become a commercial success. It was 2008 – one year after HarperCollins published The Book of Negroes – and conventional publishing wisdom suggested that if the sprawling historical novel hadn’t grabbed media and book-buyers’ attention within the first few weeks of its release, it wasn’t going to turn into a bestseller a year later. But Hill was proven wrong that summer, while visiting Prince Edward Island. An acquaintance congratulated the author on The Book of Negroes landing on the national bestsellers’ list. Hill thought they must be mistaken, but to be sure, he checked the newspaper – and there it was. Each week following that pleasant surprise, the book continued its rise up the chart, until it became the number-one seller in Canada. The novel remained in the top spot for the better part of the next two years, selling more than 750,000 net copies.
There is probably a nexus of reasons why The Book of Negroes made a slow rise to bestseller status, but Hill attributes its initial success to word-of-mouth endorsements by book clubs. As part of the promotional efforts for all his early novels, Hill visited reading groups. This January, while on stage at a Girly Book Club event in Toronto, Hill shared his gratitude with the assembled crowd of approximately 50 women (and one man) at the Spadina Theatre. He said that for all the dozens of book clubs he’s attended over the years, 99.9 per cent of the members were female. “It was women in book clubs in the United States and Canada that turned The Book of Negroes into a bestseller,” he said. “I feel a very special debt to women.”
Statistics back Hill’s anecdotal observation. The U.S. website BookBrowse published a survey in 2015 using 15 years of collected data from 3,600 respondents, and discovered that 93 per cent of book club participants are women. (To date, there have not been any extensive studies covering Canada.) Book clubs – and their endorsements – have the power to significantly influence a title’s sales, yet they’re often dismissed as nothing more than an excuse for women to gossip and drink Chardonnay. There’s even a Google image-search category dedicated to jokes like “My book club only reads wine labels” and “Reading between the wines.” Perhaps the most public dismissal came in 2001, when Jonathan Franzen feared he would alienate his male readership if his novel The Corrections bore an Oprah Book Club sticker on its cover.
But then there are many more writers who embrace the dominant female demographic as part of their personal marketing efforts. Toronto author Kate Hilton worked diligently to promote her international bestselling novel, The Hole in the Middle, about a 39-year-old mother and wife facing middle age who reconnects with a lost love. Originally self-published in 2013, the book’s instant popularity caught the attention of HarperCollins, which picked up the rights and re-released it five months later. “Book clubs ended up being a bigger part of my promotional strategy than I had planned them to be,” Hilton says. “It was a good investment of time.”
Early on, Hilton sought out groups to visit and accepted invitations through her personal network. But word of mouth took over, and soon people with whom she had no connection were inviting her into their homes. Hilton has lost track, but she estimates she’s visited more than 100 clubs, either in person or online via FaceTime or Skype, and expects that number to increase with the publication of her new novel, Just Like Family, in May. “The nice thing about [The Hole in the Middle] was that it ended up having a long tail on it,” she says. “Long after the traditional publishing machine had wound down, I was still getting calls. The book came out three years ago and I’m still getting called for the occasional book club.”
Like Hilton, Vancouver author Roberta Rich didn’t expect to find a big audience in book clubs. She was giving a reading for her first novel, 2011’s The Midwife of Venice (Random House), when she was approached by a club organizer at the book-signing table. Since then, she says, her appearances have “mushroomed,” and she has visited 32 clubs. Rich – whose fourth novel, A Trial in Venice, came out in March – doesn’t charge appearance fees, but she will either ask or insist that members purchase copies of her book. She can’t quantify the influence clubs actually have on her bottom-line sales, but says they “continue to read it and sales remain, if not brisk, than steady.”
When The Book of Negroes first arrived in 2007, social media was not yet fully integrated into publishers’ promotional strategies. Facebook was only four years old, Twitter hashtag searches hadn’t even been rolled out yet, and Instagram was a few years away from hitting smartphones. In today’s online environment, however, where authors can connect directly to hundreds of readers via a Twitter chat or Facebook Live, or respond to comments on Goodreads, the idea of meeting in person with small groups of people might seem charmingly antiquated – or a waste of a time. But for many publishers, book clubs remain a coveted audience. Hookline Books in the U.K. has gone so far as to invite members to read through its slush pile and rank manuscript submissions.
Although the stereotype endures that book clubs mostly read “women’s fiction” (which may explain the low male participation), BookBrowse’s study shows that they pick titles across a wide variety of genres. A search through the social-networking website Meetup uncovers a range of interests, from sci-fi to African literature, Christian lit to young-adult. Cory Beatty, marketing director at HarperCollins, says that while big-title fiction still tends to dominate, he has noticed more non-fiction groups in the past few years. During the adult-colouring-book craze of 2015, he even observed some dedicated to putting pencil crayon to paper.
Titles from multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House are still the most popular, as picks are often based on major award winners and bestseller lists – which tend to be dominated by the major houses. The multinationals also have larger budgets and more resources for direct marketing. (Several indie publishers interviewed for this story expressed frustration at their attempts to find and connect with enough clubs to make it worth
their while.) HarperCollins’s marketing team runs The Savvy Reader, a website that caters to groups through pledges, contests, reviews, lists, and literary-related images and quotes. The publisher relies heavily on social media, including its corporate Facebook page, which Beatty compares to an online book club. Retail promotions and swag such as bookmarks are also part of the mix, and some titles feature discussion guides with questions designed to jumpstart conversations about characters, plots, and themes. Still, Beatty says tracking groups down can be the trickiest part of the work, and he wishes someone would invent a “national registry of book clubs.”
As a member of a group himself, Beatty knows “it’s always contentious which books get chosen” for each meeting, and understands that a pushy approach will never work. He believes that “unless a book is chosen organically and genuinely, it won’t have the long-term effect … we would want. What we try to do is just be open and available, and encourage our authors to do the same.”
Both Beatty and Felicia Quon, vice-president of marketing and publicity at Simon & Schuster Canada, say they aren’t selective about the size or geographic location of the groups they court. Quon says her team does outreach to groups, and often sends out advance reading copies of upcoming books. Like HarperCollins, S&S provides guides and other resources, but always with the knowledge that “book clubs don’t care about the publisher, they care about a book they’ve heard about.”
For authors, the intangible benefits of book-club endorsements can extend beyond sales – it’s still one of the most personal ways of connecting directly to readers, and future readers. Rich recalls a memorable experience in North Vancouver, which she calls “a hotbed of book clubs. In fact, I suspect one must belong to [one] in order to live there.” Her first visit to a favourite local group was for The Midwife of Venice, which features a midwife who has invented a rudimentary form of forceps fashioned from silver soup ladles. “The book club – which also served a delicious dinner – had at every place setting, crossed spoon ladles tied with a bow,” Rich says. “I was very touched and pleased.”