Like so many booksellers, reps and readers who have read City of Thieves by David Benioff (Viking, $24.95, 9780670018703/0670018708), Rona Brinlee of the Bookmark, Atlantic Beach, Fla., is a big fan of the May title that is set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege in World War II and stars two young men who have less than a week to find a dozen eggs for a secret police colonel or lose their lives. (The colonel's daughter is getting married, and the eggs are needed to make her a wedding cake.)
"I think City of Thieves is the next Water for Elephants," Brinlee told Shelf Awareness. "It's historical fiction with a happy ending. It's great storytelling, gives details about the time and place. It shows all the extremes of war, when humanity can be so terrible and wonderful. It has funny, happy, sad, poignant parts. And some parts may be relevant to today."
The Bookmark has sold more than 30 copies, which is "very good" for the little store, Brinlee said. City of Thieves is on the staff recommendation shelf, displayed in the window and the staff is handselling it to "all kinds of people." Brinlee explained: "It's a marketing delight because it's for any age and any gender. It's a coming-of-age story set in time in a certain generation with historical appeal. It's a perfect storm of a book and will keep selling for years."
Oh, and Brinlee, who appears twice a year on NPR's Morning Edition making summer and holiday recommendations, led off with City of Thieves when she appeared on the show May 23.
Other booksellers rave about the book, too. Towne Center Books, Pleasanton, Calif., has sold more than 90 copies of City of Thieves, which owner Judy Wheeler called "really impressive for us." Every staff member has liked the book and written something about it that's displayed in the store. Towne Center Books offers a money-back guarantee on City of Thieves and staff regularly ask every customer who comes in, "Do you want to see our store's favorite book?" Several book clubs have chosen the book, too.
At Towne Center, the book passed an extensive interest test. Before she read it, Wheeler gave a copy to an employee who took it home and came back saying that her husband had stayed up until two in the morning to finish it--something he "never does." Then the employee read it and liked it. Finally Wheeler sat down with City of Thieves and read it in one sitting. "If I read a book in one piece, that's a pretty big deal," she said.
[Incidentally this reporter picked up the book over the Fourth of July weekend, intending merely to check it out, but wound up reading it in two days. For him, that's a pretty big deal.]
Catherine Weller of Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah, described herself as "crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy" about the book. She made City of Thieves one of her summer picks for Radio West, an NPR radio program in Utah that's also broadcast on XM radio, and intends to do more in-store with it. Weller has an unusual viewpoint that has added to her enthusiasm. "I was a Russian major and studied one summer in the Soviet Union," she said. "I spent some time in Leningrad, where the 900-day siege lives long. [Benioff] did a great job historically and artistically with the topic."
Daniel Goldin of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, Milwaukee, Wis., liked the book so much that he "made a big fuss about it" at BookExpo America with the Penguin staff. He told them, he said, not to "let the book wait for paperback to break out." Schwartz has touted the book in its e-mail newsletter and plans to do more.
Several major indies, including Vroman's, Pasadena, Calif., and Green Apple Books, San Francisco, Calif., have chosen the book as their pick of the month. In Vroman's case, it's the store's first hardcover to take that prize. Green Apple made a video promoting the book that appears on YouTube. On local radio, Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif., recommended the title as her No. 1 fiction pick for the summer.
City of Thieves continues to get media attention. On July 6, the New York Times Book Review gave the book a glowing review. ("The novel tells a refreshingly traditional tale, driven by an often ingenious plot.") On July 4, Alan Cheuse reviewed the book on All Things Considered. ("This all feels psychologically satisfying and historically authentic even as the harrowing events of the starving city and in those dark woods take on mythical proportion.")
Author David Benioff has done some publicity for the book, including appearing at several dinners with booksellers in California and a lot of radio, a little TV, a Wall Street Journal online interview and a featured interview in the current PowellsBooks.news e-mail newsletter and on Powells.com. A screenwriter--he wrote the screenplay for The Kite Runner--and author of The 25th Hour, which became a film directed by Spike Lee, Benioff lives in Los Angeles, is in his 30s and is married to actress Amanda Peet. He's described by booksellers and reps who've met him as modest, accessible and very likable.
From the beginning, Penguin's adult hardcover reps have supported the book City of Thieves with a special intensity. All of the booksellers with whom Shelf Awareness spoke said that their Penguin rep had made sure they read a galley.
The buzz started before sales conference and was striking, Diana Van Vleck, field sales manager, said, because it came spontaneously from many reps. "Every rep who read the book raved about it," she stated. "Sometimes this kind of in-house buzz peters out, but this one has kept going. Every day someone new joins in. The word of mouth is still spreading."
As Wendy Pearl, a Penguin rep in the Bay Area, put it, "This is not a case of the company saying it was putting zillions of dollars behind a book and telling the reps to go and make it happen. This is a groundswell effort." She said, too, that while "every rep has a favorite book on any list and promotes it," they're usually different books, but in the case of City of Thieves, the push is national.
Early on, Pearl sent out galleys with a letter to many of her accounts. At dinners in California with Benioff, she noticed that all the booksellers who attended said they loved the book, which "I've seen only a few times, with The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner and The Secret Life of Bees. I knew there was big potential out there."
At sales conference in April, Pearl and other reps brainstormed about promoting City of Thieves. When the book was published in mid-May, the company sent many booksellers signed copies, bookmarks with booksellers' and authors' raves--and chocolate eggs in honor of the protagonist's quest. In addition, just before the Fourth of July, Dick Heffernan, president of sales at Penguin, sent out a note, reviews, "a glowing letter" from Khaled Hosseini and two copies of the book to some 400 independent bookstores, asking recipients to read one copy and give the other to another staff member.
Two months after publication date, City of Thieves has more than 50,000 copies in print and has appeared on local and regional bestseller lists in California. Van Vleck said that "the chains have been supportive" and independents have been phenomenal. Although the book will sell "millions of copies in paperback," as Pearl put it, Viking aims to continue to sell the hardcover through the rest of the year in its many appealing ways: beach read, holiday gift or as Van Vleck said, "a book that will entertain anyone who reads it."--John Mutter