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Whodunit?

The rebranding of Ruth Rendell.

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What’s a best-selling English mystery writer with 62 books under her belt—a baroness!—doing in the midst of an American marketing blitz, the kind reserved for literary ingenues? For the Stateside publication of Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down, her publishers at Crown decided it was time to boost her American sales out of the five-figure doldrums, and to that end pulled two uncommon publicity moves. Their first salvo was the stunt galley. Proofs of the book (pictured) went to booksellers and journalists—7,000 of them—with spine copy that identified the author only as “One of the most remarkable novelists of her generation.” The cover listed raves from the Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates, and ten others. In a note, publisher Steve Ross announced, “If you haven’t already guessed, the object of these accolades is Ruth Rendell . . . Our plans are in place to bring her to an entirely new level of readership.” Then came the second maneuver—call it the forgotten-genius ploy. Crown is playing on reader and bookseller guilt, setting up Rendell as the author we all shamefully ignore in favor of the Lauren Weisbergers of the world, and this tricked-out reintroduction is bearing fruit, most prominently with a long Times profile. Why now? The campaign started when Ross and Rendell’s American agent were discussing the disparity between her crossover acclaim and her U.S. sales. (She sells about 400,000 copies per title in Britain.) “We’ve been publishing her for seventeen years,” says Ross, “and she’s accumulated this embarrassment of awards and recognition.” So out came a big ad campaign, a 100,000-copy printing (twice her usual), and a publicity junket for the 75-year-old. “Ruth has been so entrenched at the level she’s been selling at,” says Ross, “the glass ceiling has been thickening, if you’ll pardon the dreadful metaphor.” Even at Crown, Ross admits, “many people actually hadn’t read one for a while.” As for the tour, Rendell is treating it as a stopover on the way to visit her son in Denver. Is she skeptical about the frenzy? “I’m not going to answer that—I owe some loyalty to my publishers,” says Rendell. “Let me say that if they’re right, and people respond, nobody will be better pleased than I.” Ross hopes to mimic the success of P. D. James, Rendell’s friend and rival in literature (and across the aisle in the House of Lords, where both are life peers). James’s reputation transcends her genre—and, notes Ross, she’s the person “to whom this book happens, by pure coincidence, to have been dedicated.”


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