“We nurture our books,” said Jynne Martin, Associate Publisher and Director of Publicity at Riverhead Books, as she welcomed students from the NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media. “We are very selective in choosing which books to acquire, and our small staff-to-book ratio allows us to pay extra attention to every book we publish,” she added.
Riverhead Books is an imprint of Penguin Random House and has been in existence since 1994. The imprint focuses primarily on high-end literary fiction and non-fiction with a unique voice. “We cultivate each book and support our authors in all their needs,” said Martin. Their individualized approach works, and authors stay with them for decades. Riverhead Books boasts an impressive list of award-winning authors including Junot Diaz, Marlon James (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize), Chang-rae Lee, and Carrie Brownstein. Lauren Goff, author of Fates and Furies, is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. In general, Riverhead titles are contenders and winners in top literary competitions.
Currently, Riverhead’s runaway hit is British Author Paula Hawkins’ phenomena The Girl on the Train. During our visit to Riverhead (one of a number of industry visits this semester), we had an amazing opportunity to hear the behind-the-scenes publicity story of the book’s incredible rise to the top of bestseller lists around the world. Sitting in Riverhead’s sunlit conference room, we learned that Hawkins had been a relatively unknown author who worked as a journalist for many years in England. The Girl on the Train was her “first creative vision,” said Martin. Riverhead was able to buy the book from the British publisher for a “modest amount,” When Editor Sarah McGrath shared the manuscript with the Riverhead staff, everybody in the office “unanimously freaked” over the compelling and suspenseful plot. “This could be bigger than Gone Girl,” was the consensus. The Riverhead team decided “to throw all our love and creativity behind this book,” noted Martin. That said, Paula Hawkins had no sales record to speak of and was considered “a debut author.” Riverhead’s challenge was to convince booksellers and the media to stand behind the novel as well.
Martin and her team believed that word-of-mouth would be a huge seller for The Girl on the Train; they printed over 4,000 galleys in a special slipcase with a cellophane train-window and sent these to Goodreads contest winners, regional trade shows, librarians, and book reviewers. Each reviewer received not one, but 12 copies with an invitation to distribute them to colleagues, friends and family. Riverhead’s publicity team included cupcakes, too, pointing out that “the book is so delicious that it wouldn’t be fair to send just one copy.” Another tactic that got a lot of attention: disbursing flash mobs of staffers who read the book on trains and subways. USA Today even did a story on the flash mobs.
And it worked! B&N chose The Girl on the Train as their pick of the month; Target decided to stock it right away, which is unusual for a debut novel; Martha Stewart picked it for her book club; Amtrak distributed a free downloadable video through their wifi. The book was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and on CBS, Good Morning America, and many other media outlets. Celebrities such as Stephen King, Judy Blume, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Andi Dorfman all tweeted about the book. By the “on sale” date, January 13th, 2015, over 20,000 people had placed the book on their Goodreads “to read” shelves. By March 2015, The Girl on the Train sold 1 million copies. Currently 3.5 million copies have been sold.
Riverhead was overjoyed with all the support they were receiving. They sent Paula Hawkins on tour and invited reviewers and representatives from key accounts to a “thank you lunch.” As of today, The Girl on the Train has been on The New York Times Bestseller List for 40 weeks. And fans have something to look forward to: the book has been signed for a movie starring Emily Blunt.
All in all, thanks to Riverhead’s amazing campaign, The Girl on the Train is speeding down all tracks. As the tagline on the special galleys promised: “You’ll never look out a train window the same way again.”
by Alex T. Lobzhanidze