When Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction last week, author Paul Harding was understandably elated, as was Erika Goldman, editorial director at Bellevue Literary Press, the book's publisher. So were several of the independent booksellers who had steadily handsold and promoted the book since it was published in January 2009.
"It goes back to the incredible championing of the book by Lise Solomon," Goldman said, citing the Consortium sales representative who brought the book to the attention of Bay Area booksellers. One of those booksellers was Sheryl Cotleur, buyer at Book Passage, who "read it and loved it."
Cotleur said Tinkers was "enormously evocative in its precise moments, and yet those moments are also eternal," and "very poetic but also really accessible … the kind of writing you really savor." She asked Goldman if Bellevue would print a limited hardcover edition of the book, which had been published as a trade paperback, for Book Passage's First Editions Club.
"It was very exciting for us to have that opportunity," said Goldman, who ordered a hardcover print run of 500 copies. Book Passage bought 250 copies, and Cotleur was impressed with Bellevue's responsiveness. "We had to do this very fast," she said, in order to have the hardcovers available by the January 2009 publication date, "and they did it." Bellevue followed up with a second printing of hardcovers for Powell's, which featured the book in its Indiespensables program.
Tinkers also attracted attention on the East Coast, where RiverRun Bookstore events coordinator Michele Filgate ordered it for the store shortly after the novel's publication. "I picked it up because I saw a blurb from Marilynne Robinson on the cover, and also because the cover really struck me," she said. "I read the book and knew right away it was a very special book. I also knew it was one of the best books I'd ever read in my entire life. I started telling all of our customers about it."
Filgate invited Harding to read and sign at RiverRun. "I was beyond pleased that we had a really big audience for a first-time author no one had heard of," Filgate said, "because I had talked the book up to everyone. So it was a moment where I truly saw the power of indie booksellers to introduce readers to a good book, because this wasn't an author who was getting front-page New York Times reviews."
Harding also visited Book Passage and other Bay Area stores after Cotleur asked Goldman about getting the First Editions Club copies signed. "We immediately made space for him on our calendar," Cotleur said.
Book Passage's staff book club read Tinkers, and more of the booksellers became fans. "This is absolutely an independent bookstore story," said Cotleur. "It's what we do. We fall in love with a book, and we do everything we can for it."
For Cotleur, that meant giving Tinkers as a gift to friends she thought it was right for. One of those friends was critic John Freeman, who included the book in his list of "The Best Debut Fiction of 2009" on NPR.
Filgate also shared her love for Tinkers beyond RiverRun's customer base. She reviewed it for The Quarterly Conversation, interviewed Harding for the online journal Bookslut, and talked it up to "everyone I ran into who was a reader," Filgate said.
One of those people was former New York Times Book Review editor Rebecca Sinkler. "I met her last year at a writers' conference, and gushed to her about the book," Filgate said. At the time, she had no idea that Sinkler was also the chair of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize jury for fiction.
The effort booksellers put into handselling Tinkers has paid off. "Tinkers is one of our bestselling books of all time at RiverRun," Filgate said, and at Book Passage the paperback has sold well, in addition to the First Edition Club hardcover. "We just continued to tell people about it," and continued to sell the book one copy at a time, said Cotleur.
"There are independent booksellers across the country who championed this book … the old-fashioned word-of-mouth way," said Bellevue editorial director Goldman.
In early April, prior to the Pulitzer announcement, Tinkers was named a 2010 Indies Choice Book Award Honor recipient.
Since the Pulitzer announcement, Bellevue has gone back to press for 85,000 copies of Tinkers (80,000 paperbacks / 5,000 hardcovers) for a total of 100,000 in print.
Paul Harding will be signing copies of Tinkers for independent booksellers on Wednesday, May 26, when he opens the day's autographing program from 10:00 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. in the ABA Bookseller Lounge at BookExpo America. He will also join ABA members at the Celebration of Bookselling Luncheon, where he will be recognized as a 2010 Indies Choice Honor recipient. --Sarah Rettger