NEW YORK – When Suzanne Collins' “Mockingjay” was published a decade ago, Books of Wonder owner Peter Glassman put on a show: a late-night celebration for hundreds at his Manhattan store, with jugglers, costumes, a trivia wheel, cupcakes with the “Mockingjay” logo and a rare public reading from Collins herself.
For her new “Hunger Games” book, the prequel “The Ballad Of Songbirds and Snakes,” the debut at Books of Wonder and other stores will mostly be online.
“In normal times, we would have had a big party,” Glassman says. "And we might have tried to get an editor or someone else she works with to come, or tried to have an actor give a dramatic reading. But given the reality, we have to deal with what we're dealing with.”
“With any luck, we will sell a good number," he added, saying he planned a virtual party and reading, but not involving Collins.
Collins' new novel, which comes out next week, is the most high-profile release since the coronavirus shut down most of the country's bookstores in March. Unlike movies or plays, books can still be enjoyed as their creators intended them, but promotion now is mostly limited to what the Internet can offer or to the initiatives of booksellers who at best can only have a handful of customers in their stores at a given time.
Publishers have been postponing books to the summer and beyond, and “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” might seem a risk when the world seems a little too close to the horrors of Collins' fictional Panem. But Scholastic executive vice president Ellie Berger says that after “a lot of discussion about timing,” they stayed with Tuesday's scheduled release date.
Scholastic has announced a first printing of 2.5 million copies for English-language countries worldwide, and the book was in the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com well before its release date. The first three “Hunger Games” books — “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” and “”Mockingjay" — have sold more than 100 million copies.
“Ultimately we decided that there was a tremendous amount of excitement for this book, from the teens to the adults, and that we had an opportunity to make this the event of the season,” says Berger, who oversees Scholastic's trade publishing division.
To promote “The Ballad Of Songbirds and Snakes,” Scholastic has posted video trailers, released an excerpt from the book, and prepared a “Virtual Party” kit that includes a glossary, discussion guide, games and trivia, and a link to a 12-hour countdown leading up to the official release. No interviews are currently planned with Collins, who has given few in the past.
Glassman and other booksellers praised Scholastic's efforts while still acknowledging that, because of the pandemic, sales are likely to be lower than expected when Scholastic stunned the book world last year by announcing that Collins had revived her series. Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt says that awareness is strong for Collins' novel, which doesn't rely on the kind of spontaneous discovery that a physical bookstore offers. But he says that "what you will lose is the excitement” from the in-store experience of midnight openings and other gatherings.
“Also, a lot of people lose the habit of going to stores because they get used to buying online,” Daunt says, adding that Barnes & Noble would have hosted parties at its hundreds of stores nationwide. “Then they come to the store and discover that actually it's a pretty cool place. It's a lot of fun.”
According to NPD BookScan, which tracks around 85 percent of the hardcover and paperback market, unit sales over the past 2 and 1/2 months are down around 5.5% compared to the same time period last year, although they have increased in recent weeks. Most booksellers speak of plummeting in-store business offset, somewhat, by greater online activity. Daunt says that online sales have increased fourfold, although not enough to compensate for the drop in physical purchases.
"It's especially hard for new authors, for unknown authors, who need the support of bookstores," he says.
Some booksellers may see a boost in sales because of Amazon.com's decision to prioritize household products and medical supplies. The online giant, the dominant player in the bookselling market, is delaying shipments even for releases as anticipated as “Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” Amazon will offer the e-book edition on Tuesday, but is not promising the hardcover at the same time, warning customers on its site that “The estimated delivery date of this title is currently unknown.”
At the Changing Hands stores in Arizona, children's book buyer Brandi Stewart says they are offering a special “care package” that include an iron-on patch, a temporary tattoo, and a packet of “instant snow” in honor of the new book's central character, Coriolanus Snow, the future president of Panem. His origins are described in “Songbirds and Snakes.”
“Everyone here is excited about the new book,” Stewart says. “We have people who remember reading the first ‘Hunger Games’ books, and people reading them now for the first time. And with this pandemic we're all dealing with, the story is certainly something we can relate to.”