Writing makes it all better, believe me.

Like any industry “buzz,” the talk surrounding The Golden Compass started out as a whisper. In this case the murmurs started when Levine, Pullman’s editor, sent the manuscript out for author quotes and received raves from Newbery Medalists Lloyd Alexander and Lois Lowry, as well as fantasy writer Terry Brooks. As Levine recalls, this was the moment when “people in-house really started to sit up and take note;’ And thanks to the company’s recent adoption of Lotus Notes technology (see Bookselling, Feb. 19), Levine was able to instantaneously post these tidbits to the entire company, thus spreading the good word even faster.

Terry Brooks’s recommendation of the book to his editor Veronica Chapman at Del Rey (Ballantine’s fantasy imprint) was, in Levine’s words, “an arrow into a completely different part of Random House.” Del Rey acquired the paperback rights to the entire trilogy, and the notion began to take shape that The Golden Compass might just be Pullman’s breakout book.

Meanwhile, at last fall’s New England Booksellers Association meeting, Carl Lennertz, director of marketing for the Knopf group, was “cornered…by two of the juvenile merchandise guys,” who insisted that he read Pullman’s latest novel. Though skeptical at first, Lennertz recalls being hooked by the book’s very first sentence. Yet another glowing Lotus Note was added to the book’s growing heap of electronic accolades. Even more significantly, Lennertz ordered 1000 readers’ copies to send to the independent booksellers and wholesalers who receive his highly regarded industry newsletter. In contrast to the lengthy letters that typically accompany highly touted new books, Lennertz says he included a note saying, simply, “Dear Bookseller: Be a kid again”

Lennertz also shared his enthusiasm for The Golden Compass in a phone conversation with Pat Johnson, v-p and publisher of Random House AudioBooks, who recalls that she “read the book in one night–and fully agreed with Carl. [The novel] was beautifully written, and…would work incredibly well on audio” In what Johnson describes as “a real departure” for the division, rights to the title were acquired, making it the first YA title other than the Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics that Random House AudioBooks has put on tape. In another unusual move, bookstore displays will feature both the audiotapes (aimed primarily at adults) and the books, which are expected to appeal to a mixed audience.

Some Simple but Fresh Ideas

Standing in piquant contrast to the high-tech dazzle of the Lotus Notes-driven cyber-chatter, a resolutely low-tech communication strategy was put into play as well. By every elevator on every floor of the Random House offices, there appeared photocopied flyers inviting all employees to pick up their own complimentary reader’s copy of The Golden Compass and see for themselves what all the talk was about.

Adding still further to the flurry of excitement surrounding the novel, not only was it chosen as an alternate selection by Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, but–operating under the assumption that it will appeal to the adults who have made such a success of the company’s editions of the Tolkien books and the recently redesigned Narnia boxed set–The Golden Compass is an Alternate Selection for Book-of-the-Month Club as well as a QPB Selection. What’s more, BOMC’s recently founded New Age-oriented book dub, One Spirit, has picked up the book, and plans to feature the novel on the back cover of its catalogue this spring. Along with being a vote of confidence in the book’s prospects, BOMC’s decision itself has become a part of the industry buzz. As Steve Geck, executive editor of CBOMC explains, sales reps have told him that the fact that the book is a BOMC selection has become “a key selling point.”

Getting the book into the hands of the rest of the influential booksellers, reviewers and librarians was another vital task. To this end, the company produced a handsome advance reader’s edition, complete with a cutaway flap filed with quotes culled from the book’s early author reviews. And, while print runs of 1000 to 1500 are typical of the quantity of review copies produced for the average YA title, Random House had 7000 copies printed.

This elegant packaging was not lost on its intended audience. In the words of Geck at CBMOC, “It wasn’t just a galley. It was a very impressive edition. When a company does that, it means they’re taking a book seriously. And we respond to that.”

But attractiveness was not the only element that made the reader’s copies stand out from the crowd. Tucked into many–though not all–of the editions was what the folks at Knopf came to call a “buzz card”: a postcard offering readers the opportunity to have a free copy of the book sent to a friend, “with your regards.” This way, early readers had the pleasure of giving a gift (for the price of a postcard stamp) while helping Random House get the book in the hands of an ever-widening audience. What’s more, because readers are likely to have an excellent idea just which of their friends would most enjoy The Golden Compass, the book ends up with a hand-picked audience that’s almost guaranteed to respond favorably. Thus, long before the book arrived in the stores, advance readers participated in a highly personalized version of what booksellers know as “hand-selling.” As of this writing, approximately 500 buzz cards have been sent in.

Developed in the course of a conversation between Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers marketing manager Suzanne Murphy and the division’s publishing director Simon Boughton, the buzz card is a marketing strategy that’s simple and fresh. Just how fresh? Says Murphy, “I hesitate to say that this is the first time somebody’s done [a buzz card], but people tend to react to it as a new thing.”

And the buzz cards did indeed make a splash. In the words of Jean Getzel, children’s coordinator of Anderson’s Bookshops, Naperville, Ill., “You’re able to have all your staff members read the book and also anyone else who is interested. It stirs up excitement.” And while “you don’t want to give away too many…[receiving a reader’s edition] makes the customer feel special.”

A Way to a Retailer’s Heart

But the buzz cards were hardly the only innovative technique employed to draw attention to The Golden Compass. In an unusual move this past January, the company brought Pullman to this country for a pre-publication tour, in which the author met and spoke with booksellers and librarians at a series of relatively small-scale (no more than 15-20 people, not including Random House staff) dinners and lunches at elegant restaurants across the country.

Included in the tour was a stop at the ALA midwinter conference in San Antonio. As a ploy to bring The Golden Compass to the attention of influential librarians, it was most effective. As conference attendee and children’s literature consultant Connie Rockman explains, “Midwinter is basically a working conference. So it really stood out to have an author there.” Rockman commends Randora’s decision to bring Pullman “to places where he could meet professionals in the field.”

And the fact that Pullman is such an easygoing, personable fellow makes him an ideal candidate for this sort of tour. Despite the inevitable pressures of a hectic schedule (eight cities coast to coast in a mere 12 days), the friendly author seems to have left a favorable impression wherever he went. Says Rockman, “He was so interested in everybody he met. He wanted to know who we were, and what we were all about.”

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