Each year at Book Expo America, publishers set out stacks of galleys — paperback advance reader's editions — of their big fall books. You can tell a lot from a galley: The amount of energy and money spent on a galley is often in direct proportion to a publishing house's enthusiasm for a book. And bookseller excitement for certain titles in June often translates into big sales come September. So we're grading thirteen of the hottest books being buzzed about at Book Expo by their galleys to see what we can learn about the year's biggest titles.
Away, by Amy Bloom
Random House, September
The pitch: A woman walks to Alaska in this novel by beloved short-story writer Bloom.
Aesthetics: 6 (out of 10). Fruit still life, Alaskan landscape; this is an Amy Bloom book?
Response on the floor: 3. Mostly overshadowed by heavily hyped Loving Frank.
Publisher hype: 9. Nice letter from editor Kate Medina in the front of the galley; publicity legend Carol Schneider couldn’t stop talking to us about how much she loved it, even when we tried to talk about her other books.
Marketing plan: 6. Ten-city tour but no real innovation.
Intangibles: 4. Blurbs: great! Blurbs from semi-obscure mid-list writers like Colum McCann and Caryl Phillips: not so great.
Total score: 28 (out of 50)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
The pitch: First novel from the New Yorker–anointed author of short-story collection Drown.
Aesthetics: 7. Striking cover with a splash of red adroitly calls to mind Drown’s cover while still seeming fresh. Back cover is awfully cluttered, though.
Response on the floor: 7. Huge pile of galleys was stripped clean by noon on Friday.
Publisher hype: 6. “One of the best and most exciting writers of our time,” heralds the back-cover copy.
Marketing plan: 3. “Online promotions”? Oh, good. Tell us more!
Intangibles: 6. Díaz’s author photo looks like it was taken at the same place that took our senior photo in high school. On the other hand, this book leads industry Website Publishers Marketplace’s “BEA Buzzometer” in a landslide.
Total score: 29
Sick Girl, by Amy Silverstein
The pitch: Memoir from a once-driven law student who found out she needed a heart transplant at 24.
Aesthetics: 6. Fantastic cover image of Silverstein at odds with typical boring Grove spine and back cover.
Response on the floor: 8. Booksellers responded positively at the Buzz Panel, and this was one of the few galleys we couldn’t even get a copy of at the Expo.
Publisher hype: 6. Comparisons to Lucy Grealy and Susanna Kaysen are upmarket and smart.
Marketing plan: 0. None listed.
Intangibles: 10. Blurbs from Mary Roach, Susan Cheever and Ted Koppel!
Total score: 30
The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s, October
The pitch: New novel from author of Little Children and Election, about a small-town culture war.
Aesthetics: 7. The chalkboard with birds and bees drawn on it is a witty touch, but the cover isn’t nearly as grabby as Little Children’s goldfish crackers. Of course, Pepperidge Farm forced them to change that cover in reprints, so maybe that’s for the best.
Response on the floor: 9. Lines stretched quite a ways for handsome Perrotta’s signing on Friday afternoon.
Publisher hype: 7. St. Martin’s praises Perrotta’s last novel so much there’s room for only two sentences about this one on the galley’s back cover.
Marketing plan: 2. Vague and unmemorable.
Intangibles: 6. Points for mentioning the fact that Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have bought the film rights.
Total score: 31
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
The pitch: Cult author’s breakthrough novel, about a CIA-trained Vietnam vet.
Aesthetics: 9. Impressively hefty, with a vivid cover and nice textured cover stock.
Response on the floor: 6. Booksellers were genuinely interested but remembered the times Johnson, a longtime cult favorite, has been pitched as on the verge of a breakthrough before.
Publisher hype: 9. In a letter inserted inside the front cover, beloved FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi calls Tree of Smoke “one of the very best books we have ever had the honor to publish.”
Marketing plan: 1. Vague promises of “author tour” and “national publicity” suggest they should have just printed “We promise to try!”
Intangibles: 7. CD audiobook sampler inserted inside back cover is a nice touch; too bad ours shattered in the post-BEA crush.
Total score: 32
Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo
The pitch: New novel from the author of Empire Falls.
Aesthetics: 6. Muted but lovely cover in dark blues and grays.
Response on the floor: 10. When a friend saw we’d gotten a copy, he started telling people he was writing a column called GalleyWatch, too.
Publisher hype: 0. No jacket copy, no blurbs, no nothing.
Marketing plan: 9. Appearances all over the country, plus NPR and ads in the Times and The New Yorker.
Intangibles: 8. Russo dedicated the book to his editor, Gary Fisketjon. You don’t think Knopf is behind this one?
Total score: 33
Ana’s Story, by Jenna Bush
The pitch: President’s hard-partying daughter reinvents herself with book about a teen with HIV in Latin America.
Aesthetics: 8. Ghastly chick-lit cover but gorgeous photos inside by photographer Mia Baxter.
Response on the floor: 4. Bookseller response ranged from out-and-out laughter to quiet interest.
Publisher hype: 3. Without much writing history — or non-embarrassing personal history — to focus on, Harper keeps it simple.
Marketing plan: 10. Detailed, specific, and impressive, with a focus on online initiatives that might actually work.
Intangibles: 8. Harper’s architecturally impressive Jenga pile of galleys won’t soon be forgotten.
Total score: 33
Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
The pitch: Historical romance based on real-life affair of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Aesthetics: 4. What will presumably look golden and radiant in hardcover looks a little brown and dingy on a galley. Nice architectural motifs, though.
Response on the floor: 6. Booksellers seemed interested if not bowled over, and response at the Buzz Panel was muted.
Publisher hype: 7. ASK ME ABOUT LOVING FRANK read the buttons that Ballantine sales reps wore around the booth, and Ballantine’s publisher Libby McGuire writes a valentine to her big fall title on the galley’s front page.
Marketing plan: 10. NPR interviews, fourteen-city book tour, and a canny approach to marketing to academics as well as the general public should translate into sales.
Intangibles: 7. Great blurb from Elizabeth Berg; tepid blurb from Scott Turow.
Total score: 34
Songs Without Words, by Ann Packer
The pitch: New novel from the author of book-club-favorite domestic drama The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.
Aesthetics: 6. Striking Chip Kidd–esque cover, though one that doesn’t offer many clues.
Response on the floor: 8. Despite in-house competition from Richard Russo, booksellers were totally into this.
Publisher hype: 8. Nifty inside-cover letter from Knopf star Jordan Pavlin offers literary cred; good quotes from big papers offer critical appeal.
Marketing plan: 8. 150,000 first printing plus a solid tour and ad schedule.
Intangibles: 4. The total lack of detail about the actual story makes us nervous: Is there any plot here?
Total score: 34
Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
The pitch: Martin’s memoir on his early stand-up career.
Aesthetics: 8. Great cover image of Martin in rabbit ears.
Response on the floor: 10. We accidentally placed this book at the top of our pile as we walked through BEA and three people asked us where we got it.
Publisher hype: 4. Classily understated … maybe a little too understated for the madhouse that is BEA?
Marketing plan: 8. Modest three-city tour but, given the name on the cover, probably all this title needs.
Intangibles: 5. Cover copy dances around the actual subject of the memoir — the semi-boring task of developing a comedy career, step by step — quite adroitly.
Total score: 35
The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold
Little, Brown, October
The pitch: A 24-hour family drama, from the author of The Lovely Bones.
Aesthetics: 4. Eye-catching but crassly derivative of The Lovely Bones’ cover. After the repackaging of her first book, Lucky, with the same look, isn’t it time to branch out?
Response on the floor: 10. 2,500 galleys given away, including 1,000 in just over an hour Friday morning.
Publisher hype: 6. The back jacket copy promises more than any one novel could deliver.
Marketing plan: 8. TV advertising, a rarity in the world of literary fiction.
Intangibles: 9. Her signing on Sunday was a mob scene.
Total score: 37
Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, October
The Pitch: “The last ordeal of Nathan Zuckerman.”
Aesthetics: 7. Bold, striking front cover; boring spine and back cover.
Response on the floor: 10. 1,500 galleys, gone by 9:30 Friday morning.
Publisher hype: 8. Pages and pages of review quotes plus that canny promise of an end to the Zuckerman saga.
Marketing plan: 2. But who cares? It’s Philip Freaking Roth!
Intangibles: 10. Didn’t you hear us? Philip F. Roth!!!
Total score: 37
Run, by Ann Patchett
Pitch: Family drama set over 24 hours in Boston, by the author of mega-paperback hit Bel Canto.
Aesthetics: 10. The prettiest galley at BEA, with gorgeous, shiny cover; rough, first-edition-style page edges; and internal paperback flaps.
Response on the floor: 8. Harper’s most popular book by far, though the publisher obviously had high hopes for Jenna Bush.
Publisher hype: 5. Restrained but intelligent, with a NYTBR “Expect miracles” quote given pride of place on the back cover.
Marketing plan: 6. Solid tour schedule, though few other details offered.
Intangibles: 9. Patchett’s snowy author photo is one of the most adorable we’ve ever seen.
Total score: 38