A special cocktail and the author as debutante: One way publishers sell books
“Writing novels is so much more satisfying than writing television,” says Sarah Dunn. It’s an expertly tossed-off bon mot that practically defines the aphorism “know your audience.” The author of “The Arrangement,” a novel that won’t be out for months, is seated between two bookstore owners at a long, blond-wood table at AR Cucina, an upscale restaurant in Culver City. Hosted by publisher Little, Brown and Co., the evening is a meet and greet for Dunn, members of the media and the local booksellers who will, presumably, be recommending and stocking her book.
The restaurant decor is minimalist, a pinball machine of hard surfaces that amplifies voices, laughter, the clinks of knives and forks. “I’m an introvert,” Dunn says, which is surprising considering the decibel of her surroundings; surprising too for a woman with a television show on the air (she is the writer-creator of ABC’s “American Housewife”). Blond and blue-eyed, she wears a silver necklace dotted with pearls. Small clusters of people gather around her as they arrive, waiting for their turn to introduce themselves.
“The Arrangement,” which will be published March 21, is about an upstate New York couple who briefly opens their marriage. “Fortunately my husband let me write the book,” Dunn says, adding that it’s awkward when colleagues on the lot assume “The Arrangement” is autobiographical. (It isn’t.) She has forbidden her mother from reading it, despite the buffer of fiction. “It’s not erotic. I just think it would blow her mind.”
When Clain stands to toast her client, I feel the way I did in Dunn’s informal receiving line, as if the rest of us are suitors at a debutante ball.
Roughly two dozen guests gather on the heated patio where the tables — arranged end-to-end, banquet-style — bear flickering tea-candles and copies of the novel as their centerpieces. Baskets of warm, chewy bread and bowls of salty olives arrive; colorful salads with Parmesan and white anchovies; burrata; wine; a choice of branzino, risotto, duck. I sample a bowl of melting soft-serve with sour cherry compote and a sticky cookie too fancy to identify. One of the publisher’s publicity directors, Liz Garriga, is in attendance, as is Dunn’s editor — and Little Brown’s editor-in-chief — Judy Clain, who has flown in from New York.
When I ask Garriga about the choice to host a dinner in L.A., she tells me that publishing has “got to get out of the New York bubble,” but that invitations were sent judiciously. “We try to cater to the genre: this book has a lot of Hollywood trade interest,” she says. Indeed, a journalist from the Hollywood Reporter rolls in after some guests have already sucked down their second round of the Bee-Knees, the event’s signature gin and ginger cocktail.
Clain tells me about a recent lunch meeting she had with Matthew Weiner (Little, Brown will be publishing his first novel) and asks, seemingly without a hint of pretense, if he and I have met. (We haven’t). Clain bought Dunn’s first book, 1994’s “The Official Slacker Handbook,” which she wrote when she was a 24-year-old waitress. That book caught the eye of agents at ICM who subsequently launched Dunn’s television career, beginning with a stint as a writer on the iconic 1990s series “Murphy Brown.” When Clain stands to toast her client, I feel the way I did in Dunn’s informal receiving line, as if the rest of us are suitors at a debutante ball.
But by the time the second course arrives, something’s shifted. The dinner of course is less a celebration of the book than a soft sales pitch. The journalists and booksellers in attendance are being asked to help set Dunn apart from a lineup of upcoming authors as endless as the hopefuls on a dating show. Dunn freely admits, “books need to be hand sold.”
“Hand-selling” is bookseller jargon, what Alison Reid of Diesel Books later explains is a personal, in-store recommendation. “People come in without knowing what they want,” she says. They ask, “‘Have you read anything interesting? I’m looking for something for my aunt Mary.’ … It’s putting the book in the customer’s hand.”
Hand-selling is also crucial in a tremendously crowded field. In 2016, the industry magazine Kirkus, which provides advance reviews of books to booksellers and libraries, reviewed 7,730 works of fiction — not anywhere near all that were published. To get books into the hands of readers, publishers employ a wide range of strategies behind the scenes, including special events for booksellers in Los Angeles.
The booksellers in attendance are being asked to help set Dunn apart from a line-up of upcoming authors as endless as the hopefuls on a dating show.
I ask Reid how often she attends dinners like this one. “Look at these chubby cheeks,” she jokes, implying that publishers keep her well-fed; she estimates that she averages one a month. The dinners also allow booksellers to see which books publishers are “putting money behind.” (She would attend another publisher’s dinner the following week at Providence — Jonathan Gold’s top restaurant in L.A. — hosted by Harlequin. “They’re hand-selling to us,” she said, “that’s what that dinner is.”)
Reid has a Scottish brogue softened only slightly by years in California, and at one point she gleefully boasts to the table about her ever-mounting tally of speeding tickets. (Fitting for the owner of Diesel, she drives like she has a lead foot.) The repartee between colleagues and competitors is familiar — it sometimes feels as if the bookstore owners have come purely to chat among themselves. “Book-selling is such a catch-as-catch-can business,” Reid says. “We get strength from each other.”
Dunn fields a few questions from guests about “American Housewife,” but the majority of the (mostly female) booksellers prefer to discuss their favorite moments and characters from her novel, asking the kinds of questions that any reader would, getting a feel for the author and for one another’s takes, all factors in deciding how many copies to order.
Julie Slavinsky of Warwick’s in La Jolla, who left four hours in advance to make the event, said dinners like these bring particular books to her attention, boosting their title to top of mind. “This book may not have bubbled up,” she tells me.
“As a book buyer,” says Reid, “I have favorite publishers, but I also have favorite editors.” She trusts Clain, who has previously introduced her to the kind of book that you read, she says, and “your whole world is changed.” Clain tipped her off to “I Am Malala” well before it took off.
In fact, Clain fields her own fair share of questions: How does she choose what to publish? How does she know what’s good?
“There’s those moments,” Clain says, of connecting with a work you’ve truly fallen in love with, and she catches our eyes to see if we follow. We do.
There are still a few questions for Dunn: What inspires her work? “It’s voice, always,” she says; as befits a novelist and TV writer, dialogue comes naturally to her. “But there’s always something deeper for me; [this book] is really about ‘how do we go on?’”
Like her protagonist, Dunn has an autistic son. “If someone knows someone with an autistic kid, and they hand the book to them, that’s enough publicity for me,” she says, and despite the elegant dinner, I believe her. After the plates have been cleared, I ask if she enjoyed herself. “Yes,” she says. “It’s just nice to talk to someone about your book who isn’t your family.”
The party winds down like any other: the first big wave of departures is followed by a trickle, people break off to say goodbye to old friends and new acquaintances in smaller, intimate groups and pairs. Out from under the heat lamps, it’s cold in Culver City. A couple from the main dining room winds scarves around their necks as they step onto the street.
When I leave, Clain is still on the patio, gushing to Reid about a sprawling, epic novel slated for next November; the dinner may be over, but the appetite for books is never satisfied.
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