A 'Genius' is playing hard to get

Book: Dave Eggerers' 'Heartbreaking Work' has so much buzz that it's almost impossible to find.

February 21, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

You may have been able to find many works of staggering genius over the weekend in the Baltimore area, but if you wanted "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," the much-hyped and critically lauded memoir by Dave Eggers, you had to work at it.

The book, which recounts how Eggers, at the age of 21, came to care for a younger brother after their parents died within 32 days of each other, was on back-order at all four Bibelot stores. Meanwhile, supplies were going fast at local Borders and Barnes and Noble stores.

"It's been flying off the shelves," said Lynn Klunk, inventory coordinator at Borders Books and Cafe in Towson. "This happens every now and then. It happened with `Harry Potter,' and, over the holidays, with `Life: Our Century in Pictures.' "

Amazon.com, the Internet bookseller that usually delivers books within 24 hours, was informing customers that there would be a one- to two-week wait for the book, which was ranked in its top 20. But Eggers' literary agent, Elyse Cheney, said the online bookseller has been assured it will have more copies this week.

Even if you were willing to drive to Washington, "Heartbreaking Work" (Simon & Schuster, $23) remained elusive. At KramerBooks, it was sold out. Politics and Prose sold its last copy Friday night, but has a shipment of 30 due today from Ingram Books, the Tennessee-based wholesaler.

As for Ingram, which has a phone line that allows one to check a book's sales and orders, it had exactly one copy in stock over the weekend, 11,380 on order and 1,644 on back-order.

David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster, said: "It's a nice problem to have...There are parts of the country that have the book, but not the major cities on the East coast. And the West Coast has been wiped clean."

Eggers, reached by telephone at his New York apartment, said: "Yeah, they [his publisher, Simon & Schuster] were caught off-guard by the demand. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

But he said he was confident the book would be available within the week, although he wasn't sure how many copies are in print, or how many times Simon & Schuster has gone back to press, which he estimated as "a bunch." (Rosenthal later confirmed it started with a first printing of fewer than 20,000 and now has almost 100,000 copies in print.)

"I asked to be made unaware of all numbers," said the 29-year-old writer. "I close my ears and hum."

In the book, Eggers says he received a $100,000 advance. Such an advance would indicate the publisher hoped for a book that might sell respectably, but not necessarily make national best seller lists. But the book is already No. 1 on the San Francisco Examiner's list and No. 2 on the Los angeles Times list. Next Sunday, it will appear on the New York Times list at No. 16. Yesterday it received a rave review in the coveted cover spot on the book review.

And I think, from what we're seeing, this is just the beginning," Rosenthal said. "It's exploding, and the author hasn't even started his tour yet."

Smaller publishers often struggle when a title receives unexpected exposure. In 1997, Bernard Lefkowitz's "Our Guys," a non-fiction account of a rape in a bucolic New Jersey suburb, received a strong review on the New York Times Book Review cover, written by novelist Russell Banks. But his publisher, University of California Press, had trouble meeting demand, Lefkowitz noted in a 1998 interview, and sales suffered.

More recently, regional Algonquin Press had to work frantically to meet demand after Oprah Winfrey chose Robert Morgan's "Gap Creek" for her on-air book club. The book, which had an estimated 10,000 copies in print before receiving the nod from Winfrey, now has 525,000 copies out and has hit the New York Times best seller list.

"We had two different printers and binderies working three-shift days for six days," Algonquin's publisher, Elizabeth Scharlatt, told the online magazine Salon.

However, Simon & Schuster is a large commercial house that handles such mega-sellers as Mary Higgins Clark. But Rosenthal said big publishers are caught off-guard, too; Angela's Ashes" was a surprise hit for Scribner's, Simon & Schuster's sister's house.

In the case of Eggers, media exposure seems to have created the demand. In fact, Eggers has received so much attention for his book that a popular Internet site, Jim Romensko's "MediaNews," has poked gentle fun at the continuing hype.

To date, Eggers has been profiled in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine and New York magazine. An interview in Salon, where Eggers once worked, begins: "Let it be known that Dave Eggers does not want to be interviewed."

Not all the reviews have been positive, but New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani raved about the book on Feb. 1, describing it as "a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of a book that noisily announces the debut of a talented -- yes, staggeringly talented new writer."

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