The Marketing Muscle Behind The National Book Award Finalist ‘Station Eleven’


‘Six Weeks And 21 Cities’

I was signing in at a Global Entry / Trusted Travelers kiosk on the passport control floor at JFK the other day, just in from London.

I put my passport in, let the machine check my fingerprints, looked at its camera so it could snap its shot. All routine. And then something different: new questions had been added to the usual litany of queries asked of passengers on the program.

Had I experienced chills, fever, other flu-like physical symptoms of illness? While out of the country, had I been to Liberia? Sierra Leone? Other West African destinations?

We all know what this is, of course. And since I wrote about Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven here at Thought Catalog in August, the ebola outbreak has moved quickly into the world’s consciousness.

In Mandel’s book, the fabulously fatal Georgia Flu moves even faster. It can kill within less than a day. And it makes its move at an airport — not at JFK in New York but at Toronto Pearson International. Indeed, another airport, Severn City, figures into Mandel’s tale, in the book’s haunting evocation of a makeshift Museum of Civilization. Twenty years after “the collapse” of modern life as we know it, some of the few survivors are still focused on such profound human concepts as travel, communication, and the voyage out.

On Wednesday, Mandel’s Station Eleven may be announced as the winner of the 2014 National Book Award in fiction.

One of five finalists, the book is tipped by many observers — including William Pearce and his BookVibe team, as covered at The FutureBook — to share the best likelihood of winning with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

On the eve of the awards, the author’s special reading for the event — including several radio appearances as well as live events — will bring her to a total of 35 readings from Station Eleven.

“I learned about the National Book Award nomination while I was traveling,” Mandel tells me, “so there was a sense of watching my career change during the course of the tour, which was an incredible and unexpected thing.”

At a time when it has become popular for many, especially in the self-publishing sector, to cackle derisively about a presumed lack of marketing support for books from major publishers, Station Eleven’s landing at the National Book Awards is hardly thanks only to Mandel’s eloquence and clarity of a fictional vision that so many readers have taken to their hearts.

No, this is a story of real and personal investment by people in exactly the kind of traditional publishing environment that too many today say is an uncaring, inept, lumbering “legacy” industry. It’s easy to dismiss the Big Five as dinosaurs. But when I looked at how Station Eleven’s reception could be so robust in the UK in our last round of coverage, the people at Picador, a Pan Macmillan imprint, were eagerly committed to getting the book to the readership.

And in this article, I want to bring the book back home, if you will. What I’ve found are genuinely caring, focused people working around Mandel to promote this novel.

A tired but appreciative, excited Mandel fills me in as she finishes her tour of bookshops and other venues in three countries:

The tour was long — six weeks and 21 cities, about 17 of which were in the US. I left the country a couple of times, for tour stops in Canada and the UK, and the Knopf US tour picked up seamlessly on either side of those forays. Touring is always exhausting, but I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to tour this book so extensively, and I thought the tour went very well. I met some wonderful people, met up with some of my favourite independent booksellers—people who I only ever see on tour—and only had about three mediocre events, which is a fantastic ratio.

Mandel is a Canadian-born author who lives in New York. Her first three novels were published with a “small press,” an independent house called Unbridled. You can see their exuberant congratulations note for Mandel on her shortlisting at their site: that’s one proud independent publisher.

For Station Eleven, Mandel wanted “to see what it would be like to have the apparatus of a large publishing house behind the work,” she has told me. And with the generous blessing of her editor at Unbridled, she ended up not only with Picador’s publication of the book and her earlier three novels in the UK, but also with a contract in the States with Penguin Random House’s Alfred A. Knopf.

When I turned to Knopf’s folks to do the Stateside edition of the story, they proved to be among the most thoroughly outspoken supporters of an author I’ve met yet in the business. While I’m sure there are cases in which a publisher and its people have done less than they could or should for a book and its author, this is not that case.

The Perceptive Publisher

Paul Bogaards, executive vice-president at Knopf, is not only a well-seasoned veteran in publishing, but also a terrific writer in his own right. He goes to his personal blog on occasion with sardonic duologues about publishing so funny that they really need staging in a good cabaret setting. Here’s an example.

When it comes to Mandel and Station Eleven, he is cautiously optimistic to a professional fault; measured in his choice of words; unquestionably psyched at the powerful potential his company has to deliver this important work with a scale of attention that only a formidable house like PRH and its Knopf division can do.

“It’s hard to break a book out,” Bogaards says.

“There are a lot of brand names on the bestseller lists these days. Introducing new voices to that mix in a way that connects and resonates with readers is one of the great challenges of contemporary publishing. Take Emily St. John Mandel as an example — a writer known to booksellers for her previous novels but unknown to many readers. A lot of things have to happen for her fourth book to break out. The most important thing, as ever — what does it start with? — it always starts with the book. And she gave us an extraordinary one to work with.”

And before sending me to the several folks Bogaards wants to honor for their smart, tireless effort on behalf of the book, he does take the chance I give him to speak up for the traditional publishing world in a way I wish we could hear more frequently. When the castle is stormed, you know, it’s the folks with the pitchforks on the outside you hear. And as many self-publishers have taken the chance in recent months and years to declare their disdain for publishers and what they can do to bring a book to its readership, it’s good to be able to hear from the folks inside.

This is the tone that my colleague at The Bookseller Philip Jones has cinched this week after our FutureBook Conference in London as “positive, challenging, grown-up — and most importantly, still curious.”

This is how it sounds in New York City:

“I feel good about the contributions publishers are making,” Bogaards says, a realist, yes, but a rightly prideful one. “I am optimistic about the business in general. Even in an era of eroding assets of diminished value, publishers are finding a way to surface new talent. Ultimately, that’s what this business is about.

“We can always put a brand name on the bestseller list. It’s simply easier to drive awareness for established brands. What’s harder, of course, is taking, one, a debut novelist, or, two, a novelist with no track record whatsoever — an author where the Bookscan numbers simply don’t add up — and creating awareness for and engagement around their work.”

Even for an agent, Bogaards points out, this can be hard. Trying to get a book to a publisher without demonstrated sales for its author makes the risk all the higher.

“The commitment has to be there from the outset,” Bogaards says, “for the book to have any chance whatsoever in the marketplace. With all these books, it starts early.”

And we’re going to show you what he means.

“In this instance,” he says, “it wasn’t even a typical agent-editor trajectory. Awareness of Emily St. John Mandel on the part of Jenny Jackson, her editor here at Knopf” started well before Mandel’s agent, Katherine Fausset, brought the book to Jackson’s attention.

“Jenny was actually introduced to Emily St. John Mandel’s work by one of our sales reps, a guy named Jason Gobble.”

The Persistent Sales Rep

“It would have been early 2009 when I first heard of Emily St John Mandel,” Jason Gobble tells me. “At the time, I was a national accounts rep for Random House, selling the Knopf Group and the Crown Group to Ingram.

“Steven Wallace, at…Unbridled and whom I knew from his previous time at Random House, sent me a galley of Last Night in Montreal saying it was something he thought I’d like.  I read it and did like it.  A lot.  So much so that I sent a note to Jenny Jackson, then an editor at Vintage, telling her she should check it out as it seemed like something she’d like, too, and it seemed like the sort of novel that promised even bigger things from its author in the future. ”

Gobble, it turns out, would become one of Mandel’s most loyal and persistent fans. He goes on:

“Years passed and Emily published two more novels.  Each time they generated particularly strong enthusiasm in the indie bookstore world. And each time I’d send  Jenny a note saying something along the lines of “Just a reminder…” or “Just in case…” or “Sure hope we don’t regret not having her backlist one day…” – you know, friendly notes that viewed in hindsight come across as vaguely obnoxious.”

Wryly self-deprecating, Gobble goes on to add, “This is probably a good time to say I have absolutely no background in the acquisitions and editorial side of the business.  So it’s to Jenny’s everlasting credit and a sign of what a truly decent person and class act she is that she never wrote back saying, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, leave me alone.'”

The payoff arrived in 2013:

I got a call from Jenny saying basically “guess what I just bought?!?”  Apparently she’d gotten Station Eleven on submission, recognized and remembered Emily’s name from all my emails, read it right away, and immediately threw her name in the ring.  When I eventually read it, I was struck by just how spot-on I’d been with my first reaction to Emily’s writing back in 2009.  Because Station Eleven is something bigger – it’s a complex, lyrical, profound jigsaw puzzle of a novel about life as we live it today and what will last, wrapped up in a compelling plot, relatable characters, and accessible writing… truly, that rare novel that appeals to widest swath of readers.  Station Eleven is something special.

As it turns out, Jackson was entirely happy that Gobble had so repeatedly called her attention to Mandel’s work.

The Engaged Editor

“Typically, says Knopf and Doubleday senior editor Jenny Jackson, “it is my job to present the book at launch and encourage other departments to start reading the manuscript, but with Station Eleven it felt like most of the room had already read the book by the time we got to launch.

“Publicists for other imprints were championing the book. Social gatherings for our finance department devolved into Station Eleven book club discussions. It was as infectious as the Georgian Flu. So while typically my job here is to champion the books I acquire in-house, I’ve barely needed to do that. Everyone in-house was onboard from Day One.”

Bogaards agrees with Jackson that BookExpo America’s (BEA) “Buzz Panel” had a great deal to do with getting the book into the minds and hearts of the booksellers whom Knopf and Mandel would recruit as a kind of grassroots army for Station Eleven. She tells me:

I presented the book to 500-plus booksellers at the BEA Buzz Panel. I wrote letters to sales reps for other publishing houses, sending them finished copies. I introduced Emily in a speech to booksellers at a Housing Works social event. So I have had the opportunity to bang the drum for Emily, but always to an incredibly receptive audience. Emily’s three previous works of literary noir did a great job winning Emily fans among booksellers. So it has been a real joy to build on that base with her.

The Artful Agent

“I could not be happier with Knopf’s ingenuity,” Mandel’s agent, Katherine Fausset at Curtis Brown Ltd., tells me.

“The Shakespeare in the Park guerrilla sampler campaign was amazing.”

Oh yes, did we tell you that? When Daniel Sullivan directed the Public Theater staging of King Lear as part of the summer’s Delacorte Theatre season in Central Park, “the Penguin book cart and title wave team gave away 1,000 samplers of the book,” Knopf’s Katie Burns tells me. We’ll hear more from Burns shortly.

Meanwhile, Fausset is going on to talk about the auction she held for Station Eleven.

So powerful was the effect the book had on her at first reading, she says, that she still recalls the moment:

It was a weekend and I finished the last 50 pages on my living room sofa while my then one-year old son was napping.  I remember feeling gobsmacked, not just by the novel’s dazzling beauty and inventiveness, but by its hopefulness: the Big One might be coming, but not all will be lost. There will still be beauty somewhere. Which might sound corny, but the possibility of a frightening very near future was something I’d been thinking about a lot as a new parent. I also remember telling my husband, “If I can’t sell this in a major way then either I’ve somehow lost all sense of good taste, or something is very wrong with publishing.”

She went on to sell it in a major way.

We had several wonderful publishers who participated in what was a lively several-day auction, with a separate auction for Canadian rights occurring at the same time, so the decision wasn’t easy. But I had also always wanted a book with Jenny Jackson at Knopf. I had a feeling she and the author’s personalities would gel, but I also knew from her list that she’s the kind of editor who has much of an appreciation for propulsive plot as she does for smart literary writing. And, of course, in the end, there is also the fact that Knopf is Knopf.

For the record, authors may want to know that the three-book track record Mandel had created for her work with Unbridled played a key role in things, too, as Fausset sees it:

This being Emily’s fourth novel makes its success even sweeter.  She worked so hard writing and touring around the country for her previous three novels, and garnered so much good will from a host of independent booksellers as a result. So when it came time to sell this new one, we were able to present editors with not just a gorgeous novel but also a phalanx of meaningful, and in many cases— passionate—supporters.

And it is those passionate supporters, the vast network of independent booksellers — both in the States and in the UK, as coordinated by Picador — who have turned out to be the tide now rushing to float Station Eleven higher.

The Marketing Coordinator

You’ve already heard a bit from Katie Burns, who has headed up the community outreach, digitally enabled marketing work behind Mandel’s book. Here, I’ll just bullet for you some of the points of the program she details for me:

  • Our promotion to the trade audience began immediately following Book Expo America’s Buzz panel, where Station Eleven was featured, with an advertisement in Shelf Awareness Pro (a publishing newsletter) including a galley giveaway. We received a huge number of entries asking for an advanced copy of the book.

  • Station Eleven was promoted at San Diego ComicCon this summer with a teaser postcard urging people to read an excerpt. The postcard featured original comic illustrations based on the graphic novel which appears in Station Eleven and was also included in the Penguin Random House ComicCon party bags.

  • We also cross-promoted the book on William Shakespeare’s Facebook page, which has more than 14.2 million fans. The post, which included a line from King Lear and information about the book with an excerpt, received more than 3000 likes, 240 shares, and generated much in-post discussion.

  • As part of our social media strategy, we have been asking people to share photos of what they would miss most if the world as we know it were to come to an end, as well as mementos of the old world that they would put in a Museum of Civilization, using the hashtag #station11. We also shared a series of images around the survival is insufficient idea, where you fill in the blank: ” _______ because survival is insufficient.” Here’s an example.

  • A Tumblr page has been created for the book which features quote-cards around the “what will you miss most” theme taken from the book.

  • We created two teaser videos for the book. One is a more traditional book trailer. The second is man-on-the-street-style to include a number of people answering the question, “What would you miss most about our world?”

  • On Goodreads, we did a giveaway in the beginning of July to get early reads, which now has an excellent average rating of 4.38 stars, 278 ratings and more than 100 reviews. We also ran a finished book giveaway to further increase activity on the platform leading up to on-sale. The book was chosen as one of Goodreads’ September Best Books of the Month.

  • We also created a number of promotional materials for indie stores, including bookmarks and slit-cards for face-out displays.

  • We sent a 75-copy buzz mailing of the book to marketing and digital marketing in-house people before Labor Day weekend, with a designed card featuring a passage from the book about the death of the internet and social media.

‘Nothing Will Come Of Nothing’

Mandel’s base of support has been leveraged by her publishers at the place they found her. What has made this campaign the superb example of what a massive publishing house can do for an outstanding work of literature is that it was carefully built on the ground of her three-book relationships with independent booksellers.

For years, Mandel has used her own money to put herself on the road and promote her work among booksellers and their readers. When it came time for Knopf’s personnel to step in and begin raising the visibility of this signal work, they knew to amplify Mandel’s own efforts.

She tells me now about her tour:

The focus was almost entirely on independent bookstores. I did three or four festivals, but otherwise all of my events were at independent bookstores, and some of those events were remarkable—my book opens with an actor dying of a heart attack in the fourth act of King Lear, and at Boswell Books in Milwaukee, the owner, Daniel Goldin, brought in Shakespearean actors to perform that scene. Station Eleven also has a number of interview segments, which two of the actors performed as a dialogue, and it was absolutely extraordinary to hear my text brought to life. There was a big crowd that night, and it was wonderful to be part of a collaborative performance.

And what made that Milwaukee event doubly special was that Mandel, herself, picked up reading from her book after the death of the actor, her fictional Arthur Leander, in the Lear performance.

She and the bookstore had pulled off a staged reading of a highly theatrical, even cinematic story, which now appears to be driving deeply into hard-won terrain. This is a new work of literary fiction that has begun impacting a widening readership of enthusiastic consumers.

On, you’ll find that a certain portion of the readership has consistently rated Station Eleven No. 1 in the Kindle Store … for time travel. It’s actually not a time-travel book, not quite. But this is how it’s communicating to them, and how marvelous is that?

Another sector of the readership terms it “post-apocalyptic.” Well…you read it and decide if it’s that kind of book. I think you’ll find it something deeper, more meaningful, far more nourishing to your life today than we generally expect from “post-apoc.”

“The hope, of course,” says Knopf’s Paul Bogaards, “is that what happens for a writer who has a backlist” like Mandel’s “is that readers of Station Eleven will go back and find Last Night in Montreal” and her other books.

This is the sort of success we seem to be watching play out.

“It doesn’t always happen,” Bogaards reminds us. “We’re committed to a lot of publications,” he says, gracious to the last word: “We’re not successful all the time.

“And that’s what makes this business so interesting — so vexing at times and so rewarding at others.”

Whether Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven captures the National Book Award this week — and you can watch the evening live here — it’s stirring to see publishing’s forces rising so richly behind talent so significant. These have been hard years of digital transition for the industry! the industry! And sometimes a winner means a great, great deal.

“The commitment,” Bogaards says, “is never wavering. And the early indicators are good. We still have more work to do. But we’re committed to it. This is a long, slow burn.”

And a bright one.