Little, Brown & Co., however, saw more than just a grisly tale in Ms. Sebold's manuscript. In the first chapter, Susie, the teen-age victim, tells her story from heaven, describing her rape and dismemberment. But in the rest of the book, Susie takes the reader beyond the horror and darkness to observe how her family grapples with their sorrow and begins to heal.
Assistant Director of Publicity Heather Fain, 29, says the novel hits a universal nerve. " 'The Lovely Bones' addresses questions everyone has after the loss of a loved one, and gives life to the idea that the person isn't totally lost," she says. "While the story is harrowing, it is also about hope."
Little, Brown's gamble paid off. As of early March, "The Lovely Bones" had spent 35 consecutive weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and had 2.4 million copies in print. According to Nielsen BookScan, it was the top-selling book in the U.S. last year.
Ms. Fain is a veteran of Warner Books, where she gained experience on larger-audience commercial books, and Henry Holt & Co., which she says prepped her for managing literary books along the lines of "The Lovely Bones."
author's story captivating
Ms. Fain credits the enthusiastic media coverage to Ms. Sebold's compassion and personality, which made her an interesting person to introduce to the public and the media through book tours and interviews. The author had, herself, been a rape victim as a freshman at Syracuse University in the early `80s, and then spent years in New York as a struggling writer whose wild pursuits included climbing the Manhattan Bridge. Although "The Lovely Bones" is not autobiographical (she wrote a separate, non-fiction memoir of the rape, called "Lucky,"now also a best seller), Ms. Sebold's life experiences certainly facilitated her fiction.
"On book tour, she knows how to listen to people and knows that people need to have their losses acknowledged," says Ms. Fain. "She is a gracious person with a great sense of humor and the right instinct about what to say."
Ms. Fain says momentum for "The Lovely Bones" started to build in early 2002 with the Little, Brown sales force. Their enthusiasm for the novel after early positive feedback started a buzz among booksellers, positioning it strongly for BookExpo in May.
The July issue of Primedia's Seventeen contained an excerpt of the novel, coming amid rave reviews from all three major TV networks. On NBC's "Today," Anna Quindlen said, "If you read one book this summer, it should be `The Lovely Bones,' " and called it a classic along the lines of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Within hours, the book rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Little, Brown quickly upped its $20,000 promotion budget to several times that amount.
reviews set the stage
In subsequent weeks, glowing reviews on CBS' "Sunday Morning" and ABC's "Good Morning America" followed, with the latter choosing the novel for its Read This! book club.
Major publications such as The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Time and the Los Angeles Times syndicate also ran enthusiastic reviews. In addition, Ms. Sebold's book tour prompted local media coverage around the country.
Before Ms. Quindlen, the book was being reviewed primarily in publishing trade magazines, such as Kirkus Reviews, Ms. Fain says. "Our publicity strategy was to get advance copies out to every possible journalist," she says. "After Anna Quindlen's review, we gained leverage to get other journalists to jump on the story."
Little, Brown leveraged the positive reviews by running print ads, developed in-house, in major newspapers and magazines. TV advertising, also developed in-house, on network affiliates in major U.S. cities included 15- and 20-second spots featuring shots of the book and quotes from reviewers.