Pitch a book by its cover? You bet.
The paperback publisher of Tom Wolfe’s unevenly reviewed latest novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” is hoping that a dramatically redesigned cover -- and a youth-oriented marketing campaign, complete with a contest featuring a trip to Cancun -- will help draw young adults to the book, mocked by some reviewers who found the septuagenarian author’s accounts of campus sex life unconvincing.
Oddly, the cover of the paperback, omits the name of the novel altogether. “Big publicity and marketing campaigns for big authors are to be expected,” said Michael Cader, the editor of two industry publications, Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch. But “a paperback cover that has the author’s name in huge letters and neglects to include the book’s title at all is very unexpected, and very unusual.”
Darin Keesler, marketing director of Picador USA, the novel’s paperback publisher, said that the decision to leave the title off the cover was partly a design issue, partly a nod to Wolfe’s fame. “We were able to do it because Tom Wolfe is in many ways a brand, a star.”
When “I Am Charlotte Simmons” was published last fall, its cover featured the book’s title superimposed in script over the author’s vastly larger varsity-letter-style initials. The design struck Doug Dutton, proprietor of three influential local bookstores, as “extraordinarily undistinguished.” The image evoked the idea of college, but in an old-fashioned way, said Dutton, “like college of the ‘50s.”
The paperback cover is much more eye catching. It features a die-cut silhouette of young woman wearing a bright green shift on a dark background and the author’s name in lime green type. The title appears on the next page, or “inside cover.”
“When I first saw it on the floor of our store,” said Dutton, “I immediately went over to it and said, ‘Oh, this is different.’ ”
That’s exactly what Keesler had in mind. “It’s about college life and people love nothing better than reading about themselves,” he said, “so we thought there might be a huge untapped market among younger readers.... And we wanted to give it a younger look.”
To that end, Tanya Farrell, Picador’s publicity director, had lined up back-to-back phone interviews today for Wolfe with seven college newspapers -- including Stanford, New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. On Monday, though, Wolfe, who has laryngitis, was forced to postpone the interviews until Oct. 18.
On Wednesday, Wolfe, 74, still plans to read from the novel at New York’s Cooper Union with Toure, a 34-year-old novelist and pop culture commentator who has worked for MTV and CNN and whose work Wolfe admires. (“He is -- if you can imagine this -- Oscar Wilde as street thug,” Wolfe said last May.)
The CBS “Sunday Morning” show is slated to tape Wolfe’s reading with Toure for an upcoming segment on Wolfe, but since the CBS viewer tends to be an older one, said Farrell, she has also arranged for Wolfe to appear as a guest on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.”
Wolfe’s lofty literary reputation puts him in the top echelon of American authors; his place on bestseller lists is a virtual given. Even though sales of “Charlotte Simmons” fell short of publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux’s expectations, the novel was one of the country’s top fiction titles of 2004. (According to Publisher’s Weekly, 1.5 million first-run copies of the book were printed. By the end of 2004, about 775,000 had sold. It ranked No. 11 on P.W.'s end-of-the-year fiction list. Wolfe’s two previous novels, “A Man in Full” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” were also bestsellers.)
The marketing campaign for “Charlotte Simmons” is in line with the stepped-up efforts for paperback launches that publishers have initiated in recent years, including sending authors back out on publicity tours. Some books that have done only marginally well in hardcover have become bestsellers as paperbacks. Those include “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” “The Kite Runner” and “Reading Lolita in Tehran.”
Picador is working with the same New York marketing firm, Drill Team, that helped sell the hardback version of “Charlotte Simmons” to younger readers. One of Drill Team’s initiatives, according to its website, was to generate “word of mouth marketing among target readers through an outreach to a combined 450 fraternity and sorority houses across the country.” Drill Team also created a “Meet Tom Wolfe” contest.
There is a contest this time around, too, and the grand prize is a free trip for two to Cancun, a favorite spring break party site. The contest is being advertised on Internet sites that attract youthful eyeballs.
Wolfe, famous for his all-white wardrobe, will not be in Cancun, however. The contest section of the website, www.tomwolfe.com, offers this disclaimer: “Although the man in white won’t personally be there (sorry, you won’t be seeing Tom in his swimsuit), all expenses will be paid for a week you’ll never forget.”