Sleeper Hits Brighten Dire Year For Books

This photo released by Crown Publishers shows the cover of "The Man Who Invented Christmas," by Les Standiford.(AP Photo/Crown Publishers) AP Photo/Crown Publishers

Unless the subject was vampires, or the author our next president, it was a hard, discouraging year for the book business.

A recession that only deepened led to layoffs and other cutbacks among publishers, fewer books being purchased by customers, fewer books being ordered by retailers and, as ever in the industry, visions of a post-literate future.

But there were successes in 2008, not just the headlined hits such as Stephenie Meyer's "Breaking Dawn" and Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope," but works that quietly, effectively sold better than expected.

Lesser-known books such as Kao Kalia Yang's "The Latehomecomer," a Hmong-American's memoir, or Nicholas Carr's "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google," went into second printings and beyond thanks not to a movie or celebrity power, but to reviews, word-of-mouth and luck.

A further sampling of this year's "sleepers," including a French novel in translation, a Christmas tale and an early, prescient look at an Obama economy.

  • "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," written by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson.

    In a year when Nobel literature judge Horace Engdahl ridiculed Americans as indifferent to foreign writers, this French novel about of a middle-aged concierge and a troubled young girl has 65,000 copies in print, up from an original 20,000. Publisher Kent Carroll of Europa Editions credits "that all important opinion shaper: word-of-mouth."

  • "The Secret Scripture," Sebastian Barry.

    An Irish novel centered on a 100-year-old mental patient, it was published in June with a first printing of just 4,000. Editor Paul Slovak at Viking explains that because Barry's previous books, including "A Long, Long Way," had sold so little, stores were reluctant to take many copies for this one, or agree to have Barry appear for a reading. Thanks to strong reviews and, again, word-of-mouth, the book is now in its sixth printing, with 30,000 copies.

  • "Obamanomics," John R. Talbott.

    A catchy call for a bottom-up economy seems like an obvious hit now, but not when it was offered a year ago to publisher Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press, when Hillary Clinton was the presumed nominee and the Iraq War the foremost current event.

    But times changed in unexpected and uncanny ways. "Obamanomics" was published in July with a first printing of 15,000, soon after Obama clinched his stunning nomination. The book sold well from the start, grew stronger as the economy collapsed and now has 55,000 copies in print.

    "The Man Who Invented Christmas," Les Standiford.

    The subtitle sells even better: "How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits." Published by Crown in early November, it quickly went into a second printing, 25,000 copies in all. And that was two weeks before Christmas.
    Hillel Italie
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