Pitch a book by its cover? You bet.
The paperback publisher of Tom Wolfe's unevenly reviewed latest novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is hoping that a redesigned cover -- and a youth-oriented marketing campaign, complete with a contest featuring a trip to Cancun -- will help draw young adults to the book, mocked by some reviewers who found the septuagenarian author's accounts of campus sex life unconvincing.
Oddly, the cover of the paperback omits the name of the novel. "Big publicity and marketing campaigns for big authors are to be expected," said Michael Cader, the editor of two industry publications, Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch. But "a paperback cover that has the author's name in huge letters and neglects to include the book's title at all is very unexpected and very unusual."
Darin Keesler, marketing director of Picador USA, the novel's paperback publisher, said that the decision to leave the title off the cover was partly a design issue, partly a nod to Wolfe's fame. "We were able to do it because Tom Wolfe is in many ways a brand, a star."
When I Am Charlotte Simmons was published last fall, its cover featured the book's title superimposed in script over the author's vastly larger varsity-letter-style initials. The design struck Doug Dutton, proprietor of three influential local bookstores, as "extraordinarily undistinguished." The image evoked the idea of college, but in an old-fashioned way, Dutton said, "like college of the '50s."
The paperback cover is much more eye-catching. It features a die-cut silhouette of a young woman wearing a bright green shift on a dark background and the author's name in lime-green type. The title appears on the next page, or "inside cover."
"When I first saw it on the floor of our store," Dutton said, "I immediately went over to it and said, 'Oh, this is different.'"
That's exactly what Keesler had in mind. "It's about college life, and people love nothing better than reading about themselves," he said, "so we thought there might be a huge untapped market among younger readers. And we wanted to give it a younger look."
To that end, Tanya Farrell, Picador's publicity director, had lined up back-to-back phone interviews today for Wolfe with seven college newspapers. Yesterday, though, Wolfe, who has laryngitis, was forced to postpone the interviews until next month.
Tomorrow, Wolfe, 74, still plans to read from the novel at New York's Cooper Union with Touri, a 34-year-old novelist and pop culture commentator who has worked for MTV and CNN and whose work Wolfe admires.
Wolfe's lofty literary reputation puts him in the top echelon of American authors; his place on bestseller lists is a virtual given. Even though sales of Charlotte Simmons fell short of publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux's expectations, the novel was one of the country's top fiction titles of 2004.
The marketing campaign for Charlotte Simmons is in line with the stepped-up efforts for paperback launches that publishers have initiated in recent years, including sending authors back out on publicity tours. Some books that have done only marginally well in hardcover have become bestsellers as paperbacks.
Picador is working with the same New York marketing firm, Drill Team, that helped sell the hardback version of Charlotte Simmons to younger readers. One of Drill Team's initiatives, according to its Web site, was to generate "word-of-mouth marketing among target readers through an outreach to a combined 450 fraternity and sorority houses across the country." Drill Team also created a "Meet Tom Wolfe" contest.
Robin Abcarian writes for the Los Angeles Times.