One of my goals for 2011 is to initiate a dialogue here via this blog. I was going to begin with another post, but life happens, even in death, and so today, perhaps best of all, I’ll begin with a tale which encapsulates many aspects of my career as well as a passion and how I helped to bring Diana Wynne Jones back into print in the U.S.
It was the tail end of 1999, and I was into my third year as a children’s fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble, Inc., working on the B. Dalton side of the company, but buying middle grade fiction, or Young Readers in B&N category parlance, for both B&N and B. Dalton. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the surprise hit of 1998, ending that year by selling close to 4,000 copies total in both divisions. That’s not a typo. Four thousand units in hardcover, in children’s literature was a big deal, especially for a fantasy novel, as fantasy was very much on the fringe. By the end of 1999 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had done well over the summer, and as Sorcerer’s Stone was continuing to sell, along with Chamber, I was seeing an opportunity to exploit a bookseller’s trick of trade on a grander scale.
One of the pillars of bookselling is to answer this question: If you like X, you will probably enjoy reading Y or Z too. Hence the first, though not actualized in-store yet (that would come at the turn of the millennium) thought of If you like Harry Potter, try these fantasies. And the one that immediately came to mind was Diana Wynne Jone’s Chrestomanci books. Hold on now, I know I’m saying that backwards, as Jones first published these books in 1977 and the 1980’s. But, as I recall it, only A Charmed Life and Witch Week, which depending upon your point of reference are books 1 and 4 in the series (At the time they were books 1 and 3, respectively.), were in print, and they were both flatlining on sales at B&N, Inc. of about 200 copies a year, over the past two years, for Avon Books. I saw an opportunity to sell children’s fantasies by putting together the first, to my knowledge, “If you like Harry Potter, try…” promotion in the U.S., before the release of the third Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Yet many lauded and award-winning children’s fantasies were either selling poorly or only available in the adult Fantasy and Science Fiction section in mass market, and thus not able for me to promote within the children’s section. (1) But a sad set of circumstances revealed an opportunity for me to exploit and possibly make this happen with my wish list of titles, which included:
Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, and The Book of Three
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising
Garth Nix’s Sabriel
Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
…and Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books.
But the sales of those two books, and Sabriel, were all equally poor and in order for this to work the way I saw it, I’d need 7,000 units of each title, against sales which over the last two years, over all three titles, totalled less than 1,300 units. It made no business sense! But I saw it rising, and as the children’s fiction retail maxim goes, Christmas comes twice a year, in June and December, I just knew that if I promoted these books in June, that sales would continue on all summer and by the release of book three by Rowling, we’d have a thriving set of works to sell along with this burgeoning new frontlist. But there was no way I could convince anyone at Avon to gives these books a chance as, unlike the other backlist titles on this list, they had no award pedigrees to hang some solid sales on. But fortune was smiling on Jones and Nix as a rumored buyout of Avon and William Morrow by HarperCollins was heading towards a realization in the summer. So by the end of the year, after months of pleading with my sales rep for Avon, she came back with this happy news one day in December: “Joe, we don’t see what you see, but as we all think we’re going to be let go by the new year anyway, we have pushed the reprint button for you. Just promise me your reorders will come in before the end of the year and we’ll be set.” I won. I had to place my order early, which caused some accounting issues for me, but having “grown up” in the company, I knew the back alleys of our system and knew that if I put the orders in after Monday, December 20th, it would fall into the 2000 year order bucket, but that the order would transmit to Avon in calendar year 1999.Furthermore, I put the orders in as a reorder, which would not be “seen” on my bosses reporting the same way that promotional or frontlist order would be, so I had some time to hide the order as the stock started to land in-store by late winter/early spring of 2000.
In early 2000 that sales rep lost her position in consolidation, as did everyone I negotiated this deal with.
Over the summer of 2000 fantasy literature started to boom within children’s fiction. Not only was my promotion a bounding success, but the word of mouth on Harry Potter grew over the summer as readers spoke to each, and shared the first two books, so that by the time of the simultaneous World English September release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling was poised to become a actual phenomenom, and quietly, and deservedly,several wonderful works and authors were reaching new audiences. By year’s end, Time Cat had sold over 20,000 copies at B&N, and HarperCollins was holding up reprints of the entire Chrestomanci quartet* in order to repackage them, although I was screaming for books two and four, now, please. Meanwhile an editor at Puffin books, an imprint of Penguin USA, was trying to acquire the remaining Diana Wynne Jones backlist and once word of that negotiation, which was nearing completion, was discovered by HarperCollins, the story goes that Jane Friedman, then publisher of HarperCollins called Phyllis Grann, then chief executive of Penguin Putnam, and discussed how HarperCollins would be retaining all rights to Dianan Wynne Jones’ backlist. This is the publishing equivalent of King Kong vs Godzilla, and at the time I was concerned that I was going to get caught in the middle of it as, unbeknown to HarperCollins, I had initially contacted that editor at Puffin as I knew she was a fan, to acquire Jones’ backlist and run with it as I didn’t know what was going to happen, post Avon. In retrospect, I suspect that my position at B&N gave me cover over my fumbling machinations at the green age of twenty-nine. Still, it was fun to see what a crazy set of circumstances at the end of 1999 had set in motion.
I never had the opportunity to meet, nor even directly correspond with Diana Wynne Jones. I didn’t travel to England, and she was frequently too ill to travel to the U.S. But I feel an affinity to her, beyond her writing and how it has affected me, through second-hand reports from other friends and colleagues who have, and because, for what it’s worth, it was one of the first experiences I had as a buyer where I was able to marry my love of a “forgotten” or “neglected” work of exceptional children’s fiction, and the retail commerce necessary to make a career viable, through key promotional timing and use of my position. After 2000 all the Chrestomanci books were in print, and Jones continued her output of strong fantasy, and if memory serves, she even hit the bestseller list once or twice. Then, another legend, animator Hayao Miyazaki adapted her novel Howl’s Moving Castle into a wonderful, Oscar-nominated, animated film. Not to mention the numerous Carnegie Awards she received, in addition to the Guardian, World Fantasy, Locus, and Horn Book Honor Awards for her novels and career.
Diana Wynne Jones died the other day, on March 26th, 2011. Yet she lives on. If you haven’t read her, do pick up one of her wonderful novels. My favorites, aside from the Chrestomanci works, include Dogsbody, Archer’s Goon, Howl’s Moving Castle, and it’s sequels, and The Merlin Conspiracy. And as a lover of fantasy literature, I’d be remiss not to shout to the heavens about my love of her satirical and critical work of fantasy, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which that editor at Puffin was able to publish in a revised edition, natch.