One can only imagine the excitement an author must feel on seeing his book on the New York Times best-seller list — let alone at the top. Stieg Larsson’s latest crime novel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” didn’t just inch its way up. It debuted at No. 1 this month.
Mr. Larsson didn’t get to pop open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate, though — the Swedish author died in 2004 at age 50, not long after submitting a trilogy of novels. The first, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is on the Times’ paperback list; the third, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” will be published in America next year.
The runaway success of these novels about an anti-social hacker (the girl of the title) and a crusading journalist (not unlike Mr. Larsson himself) might seem unlikely in the age of celebrity culture.
“Turn the clock back 40 years ago; you’re sitting in the office, and someone presents a trilogy by a dead Swedish author and asks, ‘What are the prospects?’ I’m not sure a lot of people would have said we’ll go straight to number one with this,” says Paul Bogaards, senior vice president and executive director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Mr. Larsson’s American publisher.
But the Swede isn’t the only recent posthumous success.
Irene Nemirovsky also became a best-selling author — more than 60 years after her 1942 death at age 39 in Auschwitz. Her “Suite Francaise,” two novellas about life in Nazi-occupied Paris, was published here in 2006 after her daughter discovered the manuscripts. Another previously unpublished novel, “Fire in the Blood,” followed.
Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolano was highly acclaimed in Latin America, but his work wasn’t published in English until 2003, the year he died. “The Savage Detectives” finally got him noticed here when it was published in English in 2007, and his final novel, the enigmatic 900-page “2666,” earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction last year.
Book marketing has become author-driven, with publishers urging writers to connect directly with fans. “More and more authors are getting involved. It’s not a choice,” says M.J. Rose, founder of the first marketing company for authors, AuthorBuzz.com, and a best-selling novelist herself.
So how do you promote a book whose author can’t go out on a multicity book tour or make an appearance on “Oprah”?
Mr. Bogaards, whose company also publishes Nemirovsky, admits, “It’s certainly more challenging. I think everyone knows if you have an author who is effective in the media environment, you can secure bandwidth, you can secure interviews on radio stations, television stations, print outlets, blog outlets, and it helps create and drive awareness. Generally, the reason publicity departments are so big in publishing companies is we know placement drives results. The quickest way to get media is to have an author who’s effective.”
These three authors managed to crack the best-seller list without a single appearance, though.
Mr. Larsson’s first book was already a success in his native Sweden — which helped build buzz — but Knopf also engaged in some creative marketing to get him noticed here. It used an advertising agency that specializes in publicizing movies to develop a campaign for the almost-simultaneous “Fire” hardcover release and “Dragon” paperback release, emphasizing the books’ heart-pounding plots and big-screen-size characters. (Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title, easily could be played by a tough Angelina Jolie.)
As counterintuitive as it might seem, perhaps the lack of author appearances helped drive sales. With absence comes mystery, after all, and there’s certainly a sense of mysteriousness to these authors, who all have fascinating life stories. Mr. Larsson received death threats for his work investigating Sweden’s neo-Nazis; Nemirovsky, a published author while she was alive, died in the Holocaust; some have suggested Mr. Bolano’s life was one of his greatest works of fiction.
“Some still say [Mr. Larsson] died of mysterious circumstances, though we know that’s not the case; he died of a heart attack. But it adds to the aura,” Mr. Bogaards says. “What you have here is a compelling back story, and as a publisher, it’s our job to advance it. It gives people something to report on.”
Ms. Rose goes further: “This is so crass, but the fact that he died right after his book was published and he was so loved probably got him more attention than if he hadn’t died.”
She also points to the success of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by the late Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, with its “poignant” author death.
“In all those cases, sadly for the author, they weren’t alive to see what happened, but death seems to contribute to the kind of gestalt that grew around the book and the magic that grew,” she says.
Ms. Rose notes that not all authors are effective in person.
“I’m terrible on tour. I come off as a New York snob,” she says. “I’m not — I’m shy. It took me two or three tours to realize I’m not charming to these people.”
So she quit touring and no longer has to read the minds of Middle America fans, who probably are thinking, she says, “She’s wearing black and it’s 80 degrees out?”
Ms. Rose concludes, “To promote each book, we have to find what’s special about it; the more special, the more things to promote. The best situation is a fabulously written book by a fabulously famous celebrity who’s fabulously articulate and funny. Take away any one, you have less advantage, but ultimately, if you have a great book and you have a publisher committed to marketing a book, I don’t think it matters whether [the] author is dead or alive.”
It also helped that Mr. Larsson had completed a trilogy before he died. “The investment we were making wasn’t just in one book, but two books and three books,” Mr. Bogaards says. “That’s what publishers do — when we invest, we invest in careers.” With a bit of a laugh, he says, “I think we’re still finding Nemirovsky manuscripts in the attic.”
Mr. Bolano is also still producing — previously untranslated works will be released, including “Amulet” just next week, and some completely unpublished works of his have been discovered.
In fact, the literary event of the year is a “new” book by a dead author — Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished “The Original of Laura” will be published in November. When the author died in 1977, he asked that the work be burned; neither his wife nor his son could go through with it. Mr. Bogaards is handling publicity for that book, too, but it should be an easy sale.
“He is a totemic figure in letters,” Mr. Bogaards says.
“Laura” also should increase sales of his entire oeuvre. “When people write about this book, they’re going to reference his other books. And ultimately, that drives awareness in the marketplace.”
Mr. Bogaards enjoys his job — even when the lack of an author presents challenges. “Every work, every publication is a puzzle awaiting a solution. The solution is, how do you find the communities of readers to bring to the work?”