Hey, Heard of That New Novelist J.K. Rowling?
How do you leverage the power of one of the most-lucrative brands in history while simultaneously distancing yourself from it?
That's the marketing wizardry that book publisher Little, Brown & Co. hopes to pull off as it prepares to launch one of the most-anticipated titles of the year: an adult novel from "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling.
The Hachette Book Group division is taking a minimalist approach to marketing "The Casual Vacancy," Ms. Rowling's first outing since penning the conclusion to her blockbuster seven-part children's saga in 2007. The theory is that while she's arguably the best-known contemporary author in children's literature, within the adult-fiction category she is an unknown entity. Distancing the "Potter" franchise from her new work could alleviate preconceived notions about "The Casual Vacancy" and open Ms. Rowling up to wider swath of readers.
And Little Brown is expecting a lot of readers -- "The Casual Vacancy" will have an initial print run of 2 million.
"We're thinking there's no constituency that knows and loves J.K. Rowling that won't know of and be interested in 'The Casual Vacancy,'" said Little Brown Marketing Director Heather Fain. "But we also want people who just love great literary fiction to read the book, too."
The novel is under a strict embargo until 8 a.m. on its global release date of Sept. 27, and its marketing program will rely heavily on a slew of promotional TV stops, including "Good Morning America" and "The Daily Show." Ms. Rowling will make only one in-person appearance in the U.S., a ticketed event at Lincoln Center in New York on Oct. 16 that will be live-streamed to bookstores all over the U.S.
To keep the plotline of the 512-page tome under wraps, no copies have been released for review. A blurb issued earlier this year promised a darkly comic mystery set in a quaint rural English village. Little Brown has bought ads on Google, Facebook and NPR, but in-store marketing is muted. Only minimally designed promotional signs indicate the book is coming at all.
Patricia Bostelman, VP-marketing at Barnes & Noble, said the minimalism of the campaign is largely at Ms. Rowling's request. "She had very strong opinions about how she wanted this book marketed," Ms. Bostelman said. "She's very committed to being received as an adult-fiction writer, and she wants the work to stand alone, apart from her reputation and success."
Of course, few authors have the luxury to pare marketing in the way Ms. Rowling has for "Casual Vacancy," thanks to her already-massive base of enthusiasts. The trick will be to mobilize that base -- millennial readers who grew up with "Harry" -- without creating any false expectations. Andrew Sims, editor of the fan-focused entertainment site Hypable, said fans that are wild about Harry are cautiously excited about this new work. "Nobody knows what to expect, and there's a lot riding on this," he said. "This is the same audience she reached in the '90s, they're just older. She's out of the fantasy world, and the question is , can she pull it off?"
The first Potter novel was released in the U.K. in 1997, and six more followed, leading the series to a total of 450 million copies sold in 73 languages. It was also critically acclaimed, garnering multiple book prizes. And by its last chapter, the plot was dark, dense and deeply thematic.
Mr. Sims said Ms. Rowling's writing style matured along with her readers as the series progressed, noting those readers think she's already proved her aptitude in navigating adult themes. Ms. Fain, one of about 15 people in the U.S. who has read the book, draws a stark line between this work and anything Ms. Rowling has done before. "It takes place in the real world, and it's about relationships and how families interact. There is a lot of meat to it," she said.
In another break from her earlier work, "The Casual Vacancy" will be released in e-book form right away. Ms. Rowling resisted the format for years; the "Potter" franchise was released electronically only six months ago.
It's an acknowledgement of an evolved publishing industry. A Pew Research Institute study released in April 2012 found 21% of American adults had read an e-book, up from 17% from just before Christmas. Of those adults, 34% were 29 or younger -- just the demo Ms. Rowling and Little Brown are banking on.
"E-books are something you can't avoid nowadays," said Jim Milliot, co-editorial director at Publishers Weekly. "Especially for an audience of 20-to-30-somethings who are tech savvy. And it just so happens [that ] mystery is one of the most-read genres in e-book form."
As they walk a careful line between attracting "Potter" purists while keeping Harry out of the conversation, the challenge becomes defining the new J.K. Rowling brand.
"In a lot of ways, we want to think of her as a new author," Ms. Fain said. "We had to look at this book by itself and figure out how it's going to connect with readers, how people will become engrossed in it and, hopefully, love it."