Big-name awards increase sales: you can make book on it

March 16, 1992|By Esther B. Fein | Esther B. Fein,New York Times

NEW YORK -- Clarion Books struck gold earlier this year when its book "Tuesday," by David Wiesner, won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the year's best illustrated children's book.

Alfred A. Knopf had similar fortune when Norman Rush's "Mating" won the National Book Award for fiction.

Publishers are now waiting to see who will reap the profits when the Pulitzer Prizes are announced next month.

The prestige of such literary awards is immense for an author and for a publisher, but the awards drive up more than a book's stature: they drive up sales.

"The effect is immediate and significant," said Jeanette Wilson, owner of Books & Co., a bookstore on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "It gives an added imprimatur that makes a difference. You see it the day after the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award is announced. There is a big spurt of requests for the winners."

Publishers of children's books agreed that a Caldecott Medal virtually assured sales in the first year of at least 100,000, with libraries and bookstores ordering multiple copies to keep up with the demand. Equally important, the book then holds a strong place on the publisher's backlist, with annual sales often stronger than those for new books.

"The prestige is nice and we welcome it," said Theresa Borzumato, director of marketing of books for young readers at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has three Caldecott winners on its backlist, "but the increase in sales and the guarantee of perennial sales is just as important if not more so."

Winning the Newbery Medal -- for the best literary children's book -- and honorary mentions for both it and the Caldecott help sales, but not nearly as strikingly as winning the Caldecott does. Booksellers and publishers say that adults follow their own tastes when choosing books for themselves but are not so sure when buying for children, and so a gleaming Caldecott Medal sticker on a book is a reassuring seal of approval.

The impact of any award on the sales of adult books does not approach that of the Caldecott, but certain awards can significantly change the visibility and performance of a book.

People in publishing say that the rule of thumb is that a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a Booker Prize (Britain's most prestigious literary award) will double and sometimes triple sales of a book.

The National Book Critics Circle Award is increasing in prominence, as is the PEN/Faulkner Award, but neither of those has the power yet to influence sales notably.

Alice Mayhew, editorial director at Simon & Schuster, said that it was impossible to measure precisely the effect of awards on sales but that when a book wins one of the top awards, people feel that not only do they want to read it -- they also want to own it.

When Mr. Rush's novel was nominated last year for the National Book Award, the marketing and sales staff at Knopf did a computer study of previous award winners at Random House Inc., Knopf's parent company, to see how winning affected sales.

John Casey's "Spartina," the 1989 winner, tripled its sales, said Carl Lennertz, vice president of marketing at Knopf, as did Pete Dexter's "Paris Trout" (Random House) after it won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Neil Sheehan's "Bright Shining Lie" (Random House) after it won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction the same year.

In hopeful anticipation, Knopf increased production of "Mating." And since Mr. Rush won the National Book Award in December, sales of the book have risen to 43,000 copies from about 15,000.

Anita Brookner's book "Providence" (Pantheon) sold only 4,500 copies. Her next book, "Hotel du Lac," won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1984, sales soared to 37,000, and she was established as a prominent and salable author in the American marketplace.

The latest entry in the awards sweepstakes is the Abby, the American Booksellers' Book of the Year, which was established last year by the American Booksellers Association to honor the book that booksellers most enjoyed selling over the past year.

The 10 semifinalists were selected this month, the five finalists will be chosen next month, and the winner will be announced at the association's convention in May.

Last year's Abby winner, "The Education of Little Tree" (University of New Mexico Press), vaulted from relative obscurity -- it was first published in 1976 by the Delacorte Press -- to the best-seller list. The book's prominence regenerated a controversy over the fact that while it purported to be a memoir of an Indian orphan, it was really the concoction of a white supremacist. But both the award and the subsequent furor drove up sales.

"Awards are like confirmations, even more than a good review," Mr. Lennertz said. "People who read books feel that they have to buy the books that win the awards."

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