Book prizes and word-of-mouth helped sales for Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, David Guterson, and more

By Erica K. Cardozo
June 21, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It didn’t exactly have megaseller written all over it: a simile-packed tale of a ”hive-spangled,” ”third-rate newspaperman” with a ”monstrous” chin who journeys to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. And sales were modest for E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News until — a year after it was published — the novel nabbed the Pulitzer Prize. From there, it hit No. 1 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, sold over a million copies, and made its author a household name. And Proulx isn’t alone. In recent years, there have been several cases of literary authors who toiled away in well-respected obscurity (or local-only fame) before one big, breakout best-seller changed everything.

The Book: A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
What it’s About: A modern-day King Lear with incest thrown in for good measure
Author’s Pre-Fame Status: Smiley was best known for The Greenlanders, about 14th-century colonists struggling to survive. Not a light read.
Turning Point: The Pulitzer, again
The Bottom Line: 70,000 hardcover; 957,000 paperback
Beach Readability Quotient: 3 out of 5

The Book: Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg
What it’s About: A melancholy Dane investigates the death of a neighbor’s son.
Author’s Pre-Fame Status: Hoeg was a dancer and best-selling author — in Denmark.
Turning Point: The publisher hooked booksellers by giving two thousand free advance copies. A big New York Times feature on Hoeg didn’t hurt either.
The Bottom Line: More than 100,000 hardcover; more than 1 million paperback
Beach Readability Quotient: 3 out of 5

The Book: Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver
What it’s About: The story of a young woman and her adopted 6-year-old Cherokee daughter
Author’s Pre-Fame Status: Kingsolver had a cult following in the Southwest, where she lives and where her novels are set.
Turning Point: ”Word of mouth and the ‘pass along’ effect just grew,” says HarperCollins associate publicity director Jane Beirn.
The Bottom Line: 170,000 in hardcover; 500,000 paperback
Beach Readability Quotient: 4 out of 5

The Book: The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
What it’s About: A dense multi-generational tale told mainly from the point of view of one woman
Author’s Pre-Fame Status: A major literary figure — in Canada.
Turning Point: That Pulitzer sure comes in handy! ”Immediately after she won, the book went out of stock everywhere,” says Penguin’s Janet Kraybill.