David Guterson's first novel is a surprise success -- ''Snow Falling on Cedars'' passes 350,000 copies

By Matthew Flamm
Updated November 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Michael Crichton may end up selling millions of copies of The Lost World, but the real publishing success story this fall belongs to a first-time novelist named David Guterson.


Okay, so hardly anyone knows who he is. Still, the 39-year-old author of Snow Falling on Cedars has managed to create a paperback phenomenon: The novel, which explores anti-Japanese sentiment through a murder trial on a fictional island near Seattle in 1954, has gone back to press 10 times since hitting bookstores in mid-October. Its in-print total now stands at 350,000 copies — a nearly unheard-of number for a literary first novel. The book is a No. 1 best-seller in Boston and San Francisco, and is No. 5 on the New York Times paperback list.

”I’m completely astounded,” says Guterson from his home on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. The former high school teacher had a taste of fame in April when he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which along with the novel’s excellent reviews helped the hardcover edition sell more than 60,000 copies. ”What’s nice is that people in the book industry really enjoy what’s happening,” says Guterson. ”They feel it’s a genuine book that’s succeeding on its own merits.”

Its merits, the award, and some shrewd marketing by Vintage, Knopf’s largest trade paperback arm. The publisher spent more than $100,000 to promote Snow, supporting it with an author tour and point-of-sale bookstore displays. ”Its success is due to both word of mouth and clever promotion,” says Carla Cohen, co-owner of a Washington, D.C., bookshop. ”It was fun to read, well written, with a keen sense of place and good characters. So it garners a wide audience — really good readers who don’t hesitate to spend money on books, as well as marginal readers who buy their books in airports.”