Inside the making and marketing of an instant best seller

First-time fiction authors are lucky if their publisher orders an initial print run of 15,000 copies. But in a sign of Inc.'s growing clout with readers, a debut novel championed by the e-commerce site has gone into its seventh printing — a total of 90,000 copies — a week after its publication.

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, earlier this month, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is a classic coming-of-age tale of a mute boy and his dog set in rural Wisconsin. But at a time when readers are increasingly buying only brand-name authors, the 566-page literary novel by Wisconsin native David Wroblewski wouldn't normally be expected to enjoy heavy demand.

Wroblewski, 48, grew up in rural Wisconsin on a farm where his family raised dogs. It took him 10 years to write the book, he says, including a stint in which he earned a master's degree from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.

His debut is poised to be one of the breakout titles of the summer.

"It's doing fabulously well and we've already reordered," says Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest bookstore retailer. "I haven't had to reorder many books this spring and summer but this is an immediate hit."

Driving that unexpectedly heavy demand has been strong reviews and promotional support from The Web retailer chose the book as one of the best books of June and aggressively hyped it, including by posting a long and enthusiastic blurb from best-selling author Stephen King.

The same blurb was printed inside "early reader" copies sent to reviewers, bloggers and booksellers.

Amazon also kept "Edgar Sawtelle" on its home page for two weeks at a 40 percent discount before the book hit stores, and posted an essay written by the author at Amazon's request.

"We also had a preorder banner in May, which is something we do for books that we think will have significant interest for our customers," says Tammy Hovey, an Amazon spokeswoman.

The advance word — by a site thought to account for 15 percent of U.S. book sales — had significant impact. Ecco initially printed 26,000 copies but went back to press three times before the book hit stores, adding another 12,000 copies. It was forced to reorder several more times after a series of favorable reviews in the national media.

Adding to the impetus last week, Costco Wholesale Corp. increased its initial order to 18,000 copies from 3,000.

"This just doesn't happen," says Lee Boudreaux, the book's editor, who acquired the novel in December 2006 after outbidding three other publishing houses. "From the get-go we positioned this as a book to take very seriously, but nobody expected 90,000 copies in print after a week."

To give the book legs, Ecco has doubled to 16 the number of cities Wroblewski is to visit on a current book tour (he visits Portland on July 17). And while publishers are loath to spend money on advertising, Boudreaux said that Ecco is readying an aggressive nationwide print campaign intended to "keep the book front and center in everyone's mind all summer long."

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