It’s an apocryphal-sounding story. First-time author puts up own money to self-publish kids book. It generates local buzz, which quickly spreads across the nation and prompts an all-out bidding war among publishing conglomerates for the pub rights. Though this may seem like an improbable tale (even by Hollywood standards), it accurately describes Michael Hoeye’s ascent as a kids author since he cranked out the first copy of Time Stops for No Mouse in summer 2000, using local printers in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.
But Hoeye’s success, which recently culminated in a three-book deal with Penguin Putnam, is no fluke. A copywriter by trade, Hoeye mapped out a shrewd marketing plan for Time Stops for No Mouse, which initially focused on local bookshops.
‘I visited stores in the Portland area and asked friends to suggest others in the Pacific Northwest that might be interested in the book,’ says Hoeye. Once he had compiled his list, he set to work on designing a promo teaser, which involved sending a series of envelopes to retailers. The first envelope contained a key and shipping invoice for a trunk. Subsequent letters followed, each growing smaller and quirkier. One letter foretold of the trunk’s imminent arrival; another described its contents, such as press clippings on a murder that occurs in the book. Eventually, booksellers received the first chapter, written in miniscule print.
It was a cheeky but novel way of getting the booksellers’ attention–and it worked. While only 25 of the 75 stores to which he sent the mailers responded, Hoeye says they were all influential retailers that began to hand-sell the books to their customers. Many retailers that championed Time early on nominated it to Book Sense 76, a monthly list of 1,000 indie booksellers’ top picks as compiled by the American Bookseller Association’s e-commerce arm Booksense.com. After appearing on the list in fall 2000, orders for the book started to pour in from all over the country.
Around the same time, Hoeye signed a deal with Publishers Group West to distribute Time and the second book in the series, The Sands of Time, in paperback. All along, Hoeye was doing readings at schools and libraries at the request of educators, helping to build the book’s profile even more.
Ultimately though, getting a mention on the Book Sense list brought Hoeye to the attention of the large publishers. ‘It meant a lot,’ says Nancy Paulsen, president and publisher of Penguin Putnam, which secured the rights to publish the first two books and a third, as-yet-untitled book that’s due out in 2003. ‘If [indie booksellers] are giving the thumbs-up to a book, it makes people take notice.’
That’s not to suggest that Penguin signed Hoeye based on Book Sense’s imprimatur alone. Paulsen believes the books, which many reviewers are comparing to E.B. White’s Stuart Little, hold broad appeal–a contention that’s borne out by the first two titles’ initial sales. To date, Time Stops for No Mouse has sold approximately 17,000 units, and Sands of Time, which PGW began distributing in September, has shipped 10,000 units. ‘Those are incredible numbers for a self-published book,’ says Paulsen.
Described by Hoeye as part mystery, part comedy of manners, Time is set in the rodent world and follows the life of Hermux Tantamoq, an everymouse who repairs watches and clocks for a living. One day, comely female rodent Linka Perlslinger drops off a watch but never returns to pick it up, setting up the book’s main story line–Hermux’s quest to find out what happened to her. Along the way, Hoeye takes some healthy jabs at the world of modern art and fashion, which are personified by the book’s arch villain, Tucka Mertslin, a cosmetics tycoon who’s obsessed with locating a youth serum.
Though TV and film weren’t in the offing at press time, it’s a direction Hoeye hasn’t ruled out. In fact, he has enlisted friend and ex-Disney exec David Vogel to help gauge studio interest.
In the meantime, Penguin Putnam, which will target a YA audience, is putting together the marketing campaign for Time’s wide release in hardcover this January. Though all the components haven’t been ironed out yet, Paulsen says the program will include shipping clock-shaped counter displays and watch premiums to retailers.