Anyone who has read any of the papers' books pages this autumn, even those keeping the vaguest of eyes on what's been published, can't help but notice the incredible amount of attention being given to Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus. Copies hit bookshop shelves both here and in the US in mid September and have been flying off them ever since. By the first week of October it was at #10 in The Sunday Times' and #2 in The New York Times' Bestsellers lists, and #1 in the Independent Bookshop Chart in the US.
Harvill Secker, Morgenstern's UK publishers, have organised a series of publicity events over the last few months. Ranging from pre-publication promotions at the Hay and Latitude Festivals, an evening of circus performances outside the South Bank branch of Foyles here in London, to mini launches in a variety of bookshops - these came to a head last Tuesday with an evening of "punch and popcorn" at the recently renovated St Pancras Renaissance Hotel with Morgenstern herself, flown in from America, as the guest of honour.
After ascending the sumptuously Gothic central staircase, we were ushered along a winding corridor to the imposing Ladies Smoking Room (some lucky guests receiving a cheeky pinch from the well disguised living statue by the door) to be greeted by crinoline-clad stilt-walkers and contortionists inside. The bar was serving a really rather tasty gin and raspberry cocktail, and we nibbled on popcorn served in mini cones and humbugs and white chocolate mice grasped in handfuls from giant jars.
The invitation dictated that we were there to "celebrate the magic that is The Night Circus", and Harvill Secker really had gone to town in terms of bringing Morgenstern's fictional world to life - yet another example of the marketing and publicity departments at Random House sprinkling their own unique brand of fairy dust. The 'live' events have focused heavily on the performative potential of the book's circus setting - a godsend, I'm sure, for those attempting to inject more drama and reader participation into the classic book launch model - but more interestingly, the US and the UK publicity and marketing teams both turned to digital promotion with previously unparalleled success.
Here in the UK this took the form of a collaborative project with the award-winning digital fiction company Failbetter Games to design an "interactive online storytelling experience" based on the novel (find the game at www.nightcircus.co.uk and for more details about this innovative marketing strategy see a piece I wrote for Untitled Bookshere).
Meanwhile, back at the party the emphasis was well and truly on Morgenstern herself. A rather imp-like character with a cluster of sliver stars clipped into her shortly cropped dark hair, she spent the entire evening beaming with what appeared to be genuine excitement; seemingly unfazed by a jam-packed week of appearances and signings (even in the brief few minutes that I chatted to her a line of fans quickly formed behind me eagerly waiting for her to sign their copies of the book).
Intriguingly enough, the novel hasn't received unanimously rave reviews, though. As Beth Jones put it in The Daily Telegraph, it's without doubt a "crowd pleaser"; "a breathtaking feat of imagination" (Viv Groskop, The Times) that draws you into "a strikingly beautiful world" (Claire Messud, The Guardian). Chatting with Richard S. Pine, Morgenstern's New York-based agent, last night, I made the mistake of describing what we were witnessing as "hype". "I hate that word," he replied. "What we're seeing here isn't hype, it's love."
My immediate response was to argue with his sentiment (I'm pretty cynical by nature), to fall back on my earlier point about the power of the publicity and marketing, but then I considered the fans lovingly cradling their copies of the novel in their arms, and the buzz of excitement in the room around me. Instead, I actually found myself inclined to agree with him. Regardless of whether it's the reader who's fallen in love with the book, or the book that's cast a spell over the reader, there's clearly something about this story that has defied both the current downturn in book sales figures and the power of the review.