As the Mayo author’s third book arrives in shops, her publisher has launched the sort of marketing blitz that used to be reserved for a U2 album or a James Bond movie
Waterstones in Piccadilly, London, is Europe’s largest bookshop. Spread over seven floors, it is a paradise for bibliophiles. And, on Monday evening, it will be the centre of the publishing universe.
It is there that Sally Rooney, the most popular and hyped author of her generation, will read from her new novel. Tickets sold out quickly and attendees will be able to get their hands on Beautiful World, Where Are You a full 12 hours before its release.
Across Britain, demand is expected to be so high for the Irish author’s third book that 50 booksellers around the country are opening extra early on Tuesday morning, the official day of release.
Rooney’s publisher Faber is adopting the sort of marketing campaign that used to be reserved for new albums from the likes of U2 — in the days when people bought physical copies in their millions — or the latest James Bond film.
There will also be a pop-up bookshop devoted to Sally Rooney in the hip Shoreditch district of east London next weekend. Besides copies of the book, the space will feature calligraphy and candle-making workshops, daily give-aways and assorted book clubs.
There’s all manner of inventive Beautiful World, Where Are You merchandise too. The swag includes a tote bag, featuring the book’s distinct cover artwork, and a bright yellow bucket hat with the novel’s title stencilled in black.
Faber, the venerable publisher associated with such giants of Irish literature as Seamus Heaney and John McGahern, clearly believes it has a huge-seller on its hands and it has pulled out all the stops.
Two years ago, another publishing giant, Random House, employed similar tactics to promote The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to her enormously popular dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted into a much-loved and critically-acclaimed TV series. The result was the fifth-highest selling hardback in Britain since charts began.
There is no reason to assume that Beautiful World, Where Are You won’t be similarly successful — especially as early reviews from the likes of Bad Day in Blackrock author Kevin Power, in this newspaper, and Booker winner Anne Enright (writing in the Guardian) have been, for the most part, highly enthusiastic.
“Very few books have had this sort of treatment,” Ruth Comerford, journalist with the British trade magazine, The Bookseller, tells Review. “The only one in recent times that comes close is Margaret Atwood — and possibly Hilary Mantel, with The Mirror in the Light [the final part of her big-selling and critically adored Tudor trilogy.]
“There are many authors who deserve the same level of adulation, but Rooney is very fortunate in that her publisher has done a very good job in orchestrating campaigns and exposure around her — which she deserves, I hasten to add.
“And with this book, Faber has expertly built momentum and anticipation. A lot of that has to do with the timing of it — the critically-acclaimed serialisation of Normal People on the BBC has really helped.”
Comerford believes much of the intrigue around the new book centres on Rooney herself and the fact that she appears to be a reluctant star.
“The fact that she’s very young and is a very private person adds to her appeal in a certain way. But there’s a very good team around her too.”
One of the key players in the Rooney story is her agent, Tracy Bohan. A formidable figure in the London literary world, Bohan is celebrated for striking impressive deals for her writers and for managing their careers with military-like precision.
She works for the Wylie Agency, whose founder Andrew Wylie has become one of the biggest players over the past 30 years.
Dubbed ‘The Jackal’, it was he who negotiated eye-watering advances for such luminaries as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.
But even an author as established as Amis can only dream of selling books by the truck load as Rooney — once dubbed “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation” — is doing.
According to a Faber publicist, in an email to Review, Rooney’s books have sold some three million copies in all formats. The publisher would not say what the initial print run of the new book is.
As well as the royalties accrued for all those sales to date, her agent will likely have secured excellent advances for the TV rights for Normal People and Conversations With Friends. The latter is set to be screened this winter on RTÉ and BBC.
The Castlebar-raised, Trinity-educated 30-year-old Rooney has been feted in the literary world since she was 24. After making a splash with short stories and essays, there was a persistent buzz about her becoming the Next Big Thing. For once, those predictions came through.
Besides sales statistics to rank alongside the most feted popular fiction and genre titles, there has been no shortage of celebrity endorsements.
Everyone from Sex in the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker to Barack Obama rhapsodised about their love for Normal People.
Sally Rooney was already a wealthy, famous writer before the airing of the 12-part BBC adaptation of her novel last year, but the TV series catapulted her into the sort of realm occupied by movie stars.
Viewers weren’t just obsessed with Marianne and Connell, as memorably portrayed by relative newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, they wanted to know everything about the author herself.
Rooney, for her part, has seemed deeply uncomfortable by being pushed several rungs up the celebrity ladder, and much of that anxiety is to be found in the protagonist, Alice, in the new book. The character, the New York Times noted in its lengthy review, is clearly based on Rooney herself.
There’s no doubt that there would have been huge interest in Beautiful World, Where Are You even if the adaptation — co-directed by celebrated Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson — had not happened, but the very fact that it was the cultural hit of the first pandemic lockdown practically guarantees that the new book will be a sure-fire hit.
Tomás Kenny is the managing director of the Irish online bookstore, Kenny’s. On Wednesday evening, when he speaks to Review, he is in the middle of sorting out pre-orders of the new Rooney. “There’s been huge demand,” he says.
“As of now, we’ve had 701 pre-orders. It’s complicated because there are four versions of the book, including one with Sally’s autograph — we’re lucky enough to have hundreds of those. We’ll post them on Monday and, hopefully, everyone will have them the following day, when the book comes out.
“It’s extremely unusual,” he adds, “for a literary book to be as in-demand as this. Usually that would be the case for a celebrity autobiography, say, but Sally Rooney has been very popular for a long time and it really took off after the Normal People adaptation last year.”
As with Ruth Comerford, he believes much of the public’s intrigue in all things Rooney is down to her reluctance to play the game. “She’s not really on social media.
“Where other authors are constantly promoting their work, she steps back from it. I think that’s appealing to many of her readers — that, and the fact that she writes very well about a certain generation.”
One well connected figure in the Irish book trade says Rooney’s new novel is enjoying the highest number of pre-orders in this country since the final part of EL James’s steamy Fifty Shades series. Rooneyistas would likely baulk at the idea that her books are mentioned in the same breath as the pulpy bonkbusters, but there’s plenty of sex in the novels — Normal People, in particular — and several critics have pointed out that Rooney writes particularly well about carnal affairs.
Alice Walsh, owner of the Village Bookshop in Terenure, Dublin, has ordered 60 copies of Beautiful World, Where Are You. By contrast, she says she would normally purchase 10 to 12 hardback copies of a new novel from an Irish literary figure with a significant profile.
“I hope I haven’t ordered too many,” she says, with a chuckle. “There’s huge interest in her books, particularly among young women, and I hope it will be the same with this one.”
Although she wasn’t the biggest admirer of Conversations With Friends and Normal People — “I was in the minority in our bookclub” — she believes Rooney’s readers are a devoted lot. “The books really seem to speak to younger women,” she says. “And they hold on to them. I love going to charity shops and you’d almost never see a Sally Rooney book in there. I think that tells you something.”
On Monday night, Alice Walsh will keep the lights on in the shop window and arrange a special Rooney display. She has also ordered extra copies of the two other books. “We might get women in early after dropping their children. If they do well, I’ll order more in.”
The country’s oldest bookshop, Hodges Figgis, which has been a presence of Dublin life since 1768, is taking the unusual step of opening early.
“The countdown has began,” it tweeted. “Are you as excited by the new Sally Rooney as we are? Out September 7th!! We will be open at 8.30am on the day so you can get your hands on it early.”
Eason’s will not be opening any of their stores earlier than usual, citing Covid reasons.
Some stores, including the O’Connell Street, Dublin flagship, are open at 8.30am anyway. Brendan Corbett, Eason’s Group Head of Marketing, says the book will be among 2021’s biggest sellers, irrespective of genre.
“As a literary fiction title,” he says, “we’ve seen unprecedented pre-orders sales for Beautiful World, Where are You with readers extremely keen to get a copy of the first edition of the hardback or our exclusive spray edge edition [one in which the edges of the paper is given a distinct colour].
“But that should be no real surprise to anyone given the huge success of Normal People which has been a consistent best-selling book for us since it was published in 2018 and particularly after winning the Eason Novel of The Year at the Irish Book Awards in the same year.”
Rick O’Shea, presenter of The Book Show on RTÉ radio, read Beautiful World, Where Are You earlier this summer and believes its “intelligence” will appeal to those already converted to the Rooney cause.
“She captures a generation very well and I say that as a 48-year-old man,” he says. “I’ve spoken to others who say that she really writes well about women in their 20s. There’s no stereotyping.
“She’s very good on relationships between young women. And she seems to write in a way that hits the nail on the head with the audience that is reading the books — young women, mainly.”
O’Shea believes the excitement around the release of the book is good for the trade in general.
While music and cinema have struggled in the streaming age, with album sales in particular a pale shadow of what they were 20 years ago, books are buoyant.
“Books are one of those sectors in culture and entertainment that have been among the last hit — with people expecting their content for free.
“A lot of the time these days, people expect to find content either on their streaming service, which they pay 10 quid a month for, and that’s where they’re going to hear new albums on, or for much the same price, they expect to get that new series that drops on Netflix.
“Books went through a phase early on [when e-book technology became commonplace] and it looked like physical book sales were going to peter out and bookstores seemed to be in real trouble.
“But it seems to have been a blip — and, although Kindle sales are strong, people have come back very, very strongly to the idea of wanting to own their own physical idea of a book that they love. And that’s something that’s become really apparent in the pandemic, that love for books.”
It will be apparent in Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, on Monday night too, when hundreds of Sally Rooney disciples hang on to her every word.