May meeting of the BedfordShire Book Group was a bit out of the
There was the usual chitchat — the 12 members, all women, live
in the same condominium complex in Bedford, Mass. — until the
telephone rang. On the line was Donna Woolfolk Cross, the author
of the group's reading selection. For the next hour and a half,
via speakerphone, Ms. Cross led a discussion about her
historical novel, "Pope Joan."
"I was just amazed that an author would take the time to do
this," Roz Ault, a member
of the club, said via e-mail. "She was so enthusiastic and
totally involved in the conversation."
Ms. Cross has a lot of experience. Her book had only modest
sales in hardcover. But since "Pope Joan" came out in paperback
nearly four years ago, she has placed calls to more than 350
book groups, sometimes devoting four or five evenings a week to
the practice. Many of those discussions result from her World
Web site, popejoan.com, where Ms. Cross offers to call any group
that chooses the book, and word has traveled fast online as well
as at some bookstores across the country.
The phone calls are part of a wide- ranging personal marketing
strategy by Ms. Cross that has involved only minimal involvement
by her publisher, Ballantine Books. She is an example —
if an extreme one — of a new wave of authors who have turned to
such efforts to reach readers, and in particular, the
increasingly powerful book clubs. And while their efforts may
not land them on the best-seller list, these writers keep their
books alive and in print.
"In these hard times for publishers, a writer who can do this
kind of grass-roots marketing becomes a much more valuable
property," said Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers
Weekly. "Not to say that all authors could go the lengths of
Donna Cross, but they certainly have to do more than they once
It would be hard to imagine an author who has done more to
market her book than the relentless Ms. Cross. The hardcover
edition of "Pope Joan," her first novel after several nonfiction
efforts, quickly went out of print in 1996 after a printing of
13,000 copies and little promotion by the Crown Publishers
imprint of Random House. She felt the disappointment
keenly and vowed that the United States paperback edition,
published by Ballantine the next year, would not meet the same
fate. "I felt I owed it to the book, on which I spent seven
years of research," she said. "The paperback was my second
The historical novel is about Joan, a controversial — some say
mythic — ninth-century Englishwoman who posed as a man to become
a monk and rose to the papacy for two years. The story, packed
with period detail, follows Joan's gender-bending ascent against
the background of the sacking of Rome and the Battle of
Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, perhaps the bloodiest medieval conflict.
Although the book has never made an American best-seller list,
Ms. Cross has made good on her second chance: nearly 100,000
copies of "Pope Joan" are in print and it is gaining, not
losing, momentum. The most recent printing, its ninth, was its
largest at 20,000 copies — unusual for a book so far removed
from its original publication date. And with the filming of
"Pope Joan" to begin next year by Bertelsmann's UFA
production unit, its prospects are even brighter.
Ms. Cross says her marketing efforts turned the tide. Besides
the calls and her Web site, which thousands of people have
visited, she has spent more than $5,000 for banner ads on sites
aimed at women and book clubs. She has also invested hours
sending e-mail to organizations interested in issues like female
clergy. As a result, there are more than 300 references to her
and the book on the Google search engine, including dozens of
individual reader recommendations. "The power of online word of
mouth is incredible," Ms. Cross explained,
A former professor of English at Onondaga Community College in
Syracuse, Ms. Cross, 54, was inspired by the heroine of her
novel. "Writing about Joan helped me," Ms. Cross said. "She was
a strong, bold woman. I had to become a great deal bolder to
fight for this book."
Because of her unusual topic, Ms. Cross has spent more time on
the lecture circuit than at bookstore signings — and happily so,
she says. In addition to being paid for her appearances, she
sells far more books at lectures than at signings. After a
recent speech before a large gathering in Lansing, Mich., for
example, more than 250 copies sold in less than an hour, said
Karen Douglas, an organizer of the event.
But the most time-consuming part of Ms. Cross's promotion is
the outreach to reading groups. By some estimates, tens of
thousands of such groups exist around the nation.
"Publishers have become much more savvy about this market,"
said Donna Paz, founder of Paz & Associates, a consulting firm
in Nashville that publishes a yearly guide to new books aimed at
reading groups (www.readinggroupchoices.com). "Their catalogs
are full of references to `discussible' books."
Indeed, "Pope Joan" was one of the first books in the
Ballantine Readers Circle, a special marketing campaign aimed at
reading groups that now numbers nearly 100 titles. The paperback
edition includes an interview with Ms. Cross and a reading group
guide. But while other authors, like Chris A. Bohjalian
("Midwives") and Anita Diamant ("The Red Tent"), have
successfully reached out to this market, "there's no one I know
who puts herself out there to the extent Donna Cross does," Ms.
Paz said. "Think of all the people she has met along the way."
Those thousands of people may well form a built-in audience for
her next novel, which Ms. Cross is still writing. "I can't wait
for it," said Ms. Ault, of the BedfordShire reading group. "Her
phone calls won't sell as many books as an `Oprah' appearance,
but it certainly makes her much more special to the readers she
But this success has come at a cost. Ms. Cross devotes so much
time to marketing "Pope Joan" that she has been slow to finish
her next book — a historical novel, with a female protagonist,
set in 17th-century France. "Pope Joan" was such a hit in
Germany, selling two million copies, that the German publisher
Aufbau-Verlag gave her a six-figure advance for the coming
book. That and the sale of film rights to "Pope Joan" have given
her sufficient financial freedom that she plans to wait until
she finishes the new novel to sell its American publishing
So why keep working so hard to inch up the American sales of
"Pope Joan"? Ms. Cross, still bitter about her experience with
the hardcover edition of the novel, explained: "I need to stay
true to this book as long as I can. I have worked a little too
hard and cared a little too much."