How A Little Novel From Nowhere Hit The Big Time

Turning a book into a bestseller is hardly an exercise in subtlety. Publishers usually line up a big-name author, order a huge first printing, book the writer on Oprah, and persuade Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks to stock up. Put enough muscle behind the project, and you have an excellent shot at that coveted spot on The New York Times list of best-sellers.

This sort of marketing by brute force makes the triumph of the current No. 1 hardcover novel all the more surprising. It is The Bridges of Madison County, a 171-page first effort by Robert James Waller, a 53-year-old Iowa academic. Warner Hardcover Books published Bridges in April without any hoopla. By Jan. 31, it was on top. A miracle? More like good demographics and surprisingly intense support from independent bookstores, a retail format often considered outmoded.

But let's go back to Chapter One. Robert Waller is a former business professor who spent two weeks penning his tale of a four-day love affair between a wandering photographer and a lonely Iowa farm wife. Through a chance acquaintance, he got his manuscript to New York literary agent Aaron Priest, who showed it to Maureen Egen, Warner Hardcover's publisher.

SUFFERING SUCCOTASH. Bridges is hardly poetry. Sample line: "I've always thought of him as a leopardlike creature who rode in on the tail of a comet." Nonetheless, Egen bought the book. "I liked the idea that it was set in the Midwest and had the kind of Midwestern values people want to believe in," she says. She also may have liked Bridges' steamy lovemaking scene--set in the farmhouse kitchen.

Still, it was a first novel. So Egen arranged for a timid first printing of 29,000 copies. And she sent 4,000 free copies to small, independent bookstores around the country. She followed up with letters to the stores, urging them to read Bridges.

They did. And they loved it. Soon, bookshops were recommending it in their newsletters. Warren Cassell, owner of Just Books in Greenwich, Conn., says he wouldn't let customers out of his store until they had at least looked at the book. Chuck Robinson, president of the American Booksellers Assn. and owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., liked that kitchen love scene. "Is this all just a male fantasy?" he asked a female colleague. She shook her head: no way. So he pushed the book. Soon, booksellers reported customers buying five or more copies.

LAST TANGO. Here's why: Waller unwittingly did a great job of what the pros call generational marketing. The passionate hero, Robert Kincaid, is 52, while the equally libidinous heroine, Francesca Johnson, is 45. Not MTV material--but that's the point. "There's no question that we're seeing baby boomers trying to hold on to their youthful feelings as long as they can," says Jeff Ostroff, vice-president of market researcher Data Group and head of its Over-40 Marketing Div. "Here's a book that allows someone middle-aged to hold on to that kind of romanticism."

After middle-aged romantics began snapping up Bridges, the big chains started placing big orders. In January, Waller was interviewed on National Public Radio, and the book hit No. 1, where it remains. In its 23rd printing, Bridges has sold nearly 450,000 copies, closing in on the success of Sex, Madonna's book and another Warner title. Maybe Madonna should take a lesson in subtlety: One little farmhouse sex scene might be enough to do the job.

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