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The hit machine behind 'The Hunger Games' books

Before Suzanne Collins book "The Hunger Games" became a highly anticipated movie, it was just a manuscript in her publisher's office. How did it get from there to here?
The highly anticipated film "The Hunger Games" opens Friday. The movie, which stars Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, is an adaptation of the first book in a young-adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Although the young-adult dystopia "The Hunger Games," is a gripping thriller, there was no guarantee the book would hit bestseller lists and stay there. It doesn't have vampires; instead, it centers around a televised fight to the death. At Salon, Laura Miller takes a careful look at what made Collins' books a success in the first place.

With the right title, a kid's publisher can deploy something the world of adult publishing can only dream about: a large, well-oiled and highly networked group of professional and semi-professional taste makers who can make that book a hit even before it's published. This is what happened with "The Hunger Games," which landed on the New York Times Bestseller List — there are separate ones for kids' books — the week it was released. ...

[Scholastic Books, Collins' publisher] employees began eagerly passing the manuscript around the office. It was the first stirring of what would become a tidal wave of word of mouth. "When you have the kind of book," said Rachel Coun, executive director of marketing, "where assistants from other departments, even though it’s not their job, come asking for the galleys because they’ve heard it’s really great, you know you have something." "We made a lot of copies," said [Scholastic’s executive editorial director, David Levithan]. "Coming out of the fall sales conference, everyone knew that the best way to generate excitement about 'The Hunger Games' was to get people to read 'The Hunger Games.'" That isn’t as easy as it sounds; over 20,000 new children's books are published annually, and the people Scholastic needed to reach -- people outside the company -- are drowning in the piles of books arriving from hopeful publishers. ...

Scholastic sales reps were given a limited number of manuscripts to distribute to their list of "Big Mouths," children’s publishing lingo for booksellers who have exceptional influence with co-workers and peers. These people run regional associations, organize book fairs and set up school events. Teachers and librarians come to them for hot tips on new kids' titles.

Carol Chittenden, a classic Big Mouth, is a co-owner of Eight Cousins bookstore in Falmouth, Mass. and founded the New England Children's Booksellers Advisory Council, which (among other things) maintains a website where members can swap opinions on forthcoming titles. Her cozy children's bookstore in a small Cape Cod town may seem a long way from Hollywood, but people like Chittenden -- who's been selling kids' books for 22 years and who instantly recognized "The Hunger Games" as "major" -- are the wellsprings of word of mouth, a sort of viral ground zero where phenomena like Hunger Games fandom are born.

There's a lot more in this valuable look inside the workings of the publishing industry.

As you're preparing for Friday's release of "The Hunger Games," Don't miss Susan Carpenter's exploration of the movie's merchandise: nail polish, socks, earbuds and crossbows.

RELATED:

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"The Hunger Games" finds its Katniss in Jennifer Lawrence. Is she the right choice?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate

 
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