clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a book can become a hit before it’s even finished

Every year, Buzz Books helps pick the season’s hits. This year’s panel starts Wednesday.

Hoarder Home In California Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Every season, as if by magic, there are certain books that seemingly everyone has to have an opinion on. Out of the million or so books that get published each year, there’s always a small collection that gets featured in the New York Times and the New Yorker and the Rumpus, that show up in artfully posed Instagram accounts, that all the cool kids on Twitter are discussing.

That the same handful of books tend to get bookstagrammed and repeatedly featured and discussed is not a coincidence, but rather the result of a small army of industry insiders working relentlessly to create buzz around these titles. And one of the best ways to create buzz is through the Buzz Books panel.

Every year at Book Expo — one of the biggest of the publishing trade shows, traditionally scheduled for the end of May; this year’s starts on May 30 — an audience of booksellers, librarians, and publishing professionals packs into one of the biggest rooms of New York’s Javits Center to learn about the year’s Buzz Books picks. There are three presentations: one for adult fiction, one for young adult fiction, and one for middle-grade fiction. Each book is presented by the editor who acquired it, and at the end of the panel, there are galleys available for audience members to take home with them.

That’s where Station Eleven, one of the biggest books of 2014, made its entrée into publishing society. “It certainly helped as the book made its way into the marketplace,” said Knopf head of publicity Paul Bogaards, who worked on Station Eleven. The book went on to become a National Book Award Finalist and win the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

When I attended last year, as the panel finished its presentation, there was an audible swooshing sound as the audience began to scramble its way toward the galley table. They had to have those books they’d just heard about. They just had to have them.

And over the course of the following year, the enthusiasm in that room has slowly trickled down to the readers of the world. Five of the six adult books that were spotlighted at last year’s Buzz Books panel were featured in the New York Times Book Review at some point or another — as a best-seller, as a notable book, as an editor’s choice. Most of them made at least one best-seller list and at least one “best books of the year” list. I personally covered three of them.

It’s hard to quantify the effect that Buzz Books has on the industry, and whether it actually helps books or if it just spotlights the ones that would have taken off anyway. But it remains the first place that a lot of people in publishing find out about the books they’ll spend the next year talking about. It’s where those conversations begin.

“I always attend the Buzz panel,” Bogaards told me. “And I, at the end of those panels, always find myself wanting to read all the books that have been presented.”

Buzz Books is one of the institutions that help decide what books we’ll be reading and talking about all through the year. Here’s how it works.

How to build your buzz

The first stage of the Buzz Books process is assembling the panel, which changes every year. The exact members of each panel are secret, but they’re all industry professionals, and there are six of them on each panel.

“We seek people who have specialties, and we look for a wide swath,” says Book Expo event coordinator Brien McDonald.

At Thanksgiving, publishers begin to submit pitches to the panel to read. “Any publisher that’s exhibiting at the show gets the opportunity to submit,” McDonald says. “We’re looking for a breakout book. We don’t just seek out best-sellers. We want to be the place where the word about the next big thing in publishing emerges.”

Publishers don’t submit every book they have to Buzz Books, but rather a carefully curated selection of in-house favorites. “The Buzz panel at the outset is getting cream-of-the-crop recommendations,” says Bogaards.

At this early stage, the panel doesn’t look at any material from the book itself, just a one-sheet pitch filled out by the publisher. It’s only after the first rounds of voting that the panel sees any material from the book, and then usually it’s just a chapter or two — which means that theoretically, a book can develop the kind of buzz it needs to become a major hit before it’s even completed.

McDonald says the criteria the panel uses to judge selections are subjective. “Reading is one of the most personal things we do, but these folks are students of the market,” he says. “They have that in their DNA.”

Once the books are chosen, the presentations begin, and that’s where the magic really happens.

“The value of the Buzz panel comes from the constituency you are able to reach,” says Bogaards. “It’s an audience of influential booksellers, and their passions are frequently a determinant in the life a book takes on in the marketplace.”

It also helps, he says, that it’s the editors who present the books, not the publicists. “Their passions will often determine how a book animates inside a publishing house,” he explains. “They have a lot of credibility in the bookselling community.”

The editors, in other words, are the people capable of getting a room full of booksellers excited about a book, so excited that they have to muscle their way through a packed conference room to reach a free copy. And that, in turn, means that the booksellers are more likely to hand-sell that book, to talk it up to customers and get them buzzing about it.

“It is part and parcel of the momentum building that publishers are trying to achieve in the runup to publication,” Bogaards says. “It’s difficult to isolate the exact impact that the Buzz panel has, but you’re preaching to the right choir, and that’s always a good thing.”

The whole process is weirdly like a secret cabal that covertly dictates each year’s hits before the books are even written — except that Buzz Books is not secret or covert, and it really doesn’t dictate anything. It’s a spotlight for new titles in a deeply crowded marketplace that doesn’t have that many spotlights, and that makes it a powerful force in shaping each season of book buzz.