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Wall Street Journal AUGUST 20, 2009 - by Jeffrey A. Trachtenburg
NEW LIFE FOR AN AFTERLIFE TOME
To boost in-store sales, the publisher tries a revamped jacket.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives has been a cult hit since Random House's Pantheon imprint published it in early February. The work of fiction, which offers up a series of witty interpretations of the afterlife, has won fans ranging from musician Brian Eno to novelist Alexander McCall Smith. The number in print has climbed steadily from a modest eleven thousand, five hundred to thirty-two thousand today.
What intrigued its publisher is that many of the sales have come on Amazon.com, rather than at independent bookstores or through the big chains. Pantheon concluded that the two wraithlike presences on the original dust jacket suggest that Sum is a ghost story or a work of science fiction, limiting its appeal. Dust-jacket art is less important on Amazon and other online sites, where many people go to find specific titles rather than to browse.
So Pantheon has created a new jacket, something that rarely happens in book circles. The strategy worked most famously for Jonathan Harr's non-fiction tale A Civil Action, for which Random House published a new jacket in 1996 after initial sales fell short of expectations. The book subsequently became a major seller.
"Our original cover on Sum was too otherworldly," says Patricia Johnson, Pantheon's publishing director. "We think this book has the potential to be a perennial. Why not go to our accounts and say, 'We think we put the wrong jacket on it, will you bring it in again with a new feedback?'" Ms. Johnson says the new jacket is being printed now and will be available in about two weeks.