When “Sarah’s Key,” a novel about an American journalist investigating the 1942 roundup of Jews in Paris, was published in hardcover two years ago, it dropped with a thud. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales, the book sold just 2,000 copies.
Indeed, the book, by the first-time novelist Tatiana de Rosnay, was well on its way to sinking out of sight last fall when Target, the discount retailer, chose the paperback version of “Sarah’s Key” as its Bookmarked Club Pick: a choice for a program that designates titles for prominent display throughout the chain’s stores. Suddenly sales exploded.
A special edition of the novel that its publisher, St. Martin’s Press, produced exclusively for Target has sold 145,000 copies. The ordinary paperback edition has sold 200,000 copies, and this Sunday will be its 22nd week on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list.
In publishing circles Target has long been known as a place that can move many copies of discounted best sellers, as do other mass-merchant retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco. But in the last few years, much in the way it has cultivated its image as a counterintuitive purveyor of Isaac Mizrahi clothes or Michael Graves tea kettles, Target has been building itself into a tastemaker for books.
Through its book club, as well as a program it calls Bookmarked Breakout, both started in 2005, the company has highlighted largely unknown writers, helping their books find their way into shopping carts filled with paper towels, cereal and shampoo.
Compared with a large chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble, which averages about 200,000 titles per location, Target carries only about 2,500 titles in each of its 1,700 stores. Offerings include diet books, children’s picture books, young-adult novels and series romances. Paperbacks far outnumber hardcovers, and over the last decade Target has focused on the larger trade format as opposed to the smaller mass-market paperbacks. (The other big-box retailers rely mostly on the biggest commercial books of the moment, though Costco does on occasion offer its own special picks of little-known authors.)
Virtually every book at Target is shelved face out. Books in the book club and Breakout program are set apart on so-called endcaps narrower shelves that stand at the front or end of aisles with specially designed signs.
At a Target in Clifton, N.J., last week, one top shelf was devoted exclusively to the current book club pick, “The Wednesday Sisters” by Meg Waite Clayton. Five small stacks were lined up, face out, while lower shelves held previous selections, including “The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes” by Diane Chamberlain and “Still Alice,” a first novel by Lisa Genova. Another endcap featured Breakout books under a sign that read “Hand-Picked Titles From Emerging Authors” and showed a picture of a small chick pecking its way out of a broken eggshell.
Not surprisingly, the conspicuous display helps sell books. “Still Alice,” which was a Target book club pick early this year, has sold 51,000 copies in its Target edition. Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that released “Still Alice,” said that the book which has sold 174,000 copies over all, according to BookScan has sold more in Target than in any other outlet.
And after the chain anointed “The Year of Fog,” a novel by Michelle Richmond about a child’s disappearance, in April 2008, the book went on to sell 152,000 copies of its Target edition, according to Bookscan.
Target “can sell hundreds of thousands of copies of a book that is virtually unknown in the rest of the marketplace,” said Jacqueline Updike, director of adult sales at Random House, one of the world’s largest publishers.
By assembling a collection of books by unheralded authors, Target behaves more like an independent bookstore than like a mere retailer of mainstream must-haves (although, of course, Target sells its share of best-seller list regulars, like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich).
“Target says every month, ‘Here are some new titles we’re bringing to you, and you can trust us, even if you haven’t heard of them,’ ” said Patrick Nolan, director of trade paperback sales for Penguin Group USA. “That is a very different approach.”
Danielle Owens, a 24-year-old receptionist in Virginia Beach, Va., regularly buys clothes and other supplies for her 2-year-old son at Target. Last fall she wandered into the book section looking for a book for her son and noticed “Come Back,” a mother-daughter memoir of drug addiction and recovery by Claire and Mia Fontaine that had been a club pick in 2007 but was still featured on the book club shelf.