RALEIGH, N.C.—Oprah Winfrey has been Algonquin Books’ champion since she hoisted Robert Morgan’s “Gap Creek” quickly into the New York Times best-seller list in 2000.
But last week, a circus elephant and her keeper performed an even more impressive feat, lifting the Chapel Hill-based publisher to the top of the list for the first time.
Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” a novel about an elephant keeper in a Depression-era circus, reached No. 1 on the list of paperback fiction titles in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. It knocked out best-selling author Dean Koontz’s “The Husband,” which was No. 1 for three weeks.
Until now, No. 4 was the highest Algonquin had ever risen on the Times charts. “Gap Creek” and David and Daniel Hays’ “My Old Man and the Sea” both reached that mark.
“I am so impressed,” said Algonquin executive editor Chuck Adams, who came to the publisher three years ago from Simon & Schuster, where he edited heavy-hitters like Jackie Collins and Mary Higgins Clark.
Adams acquired “Elephants” after it was rejected by HarperCollins, which published Gruen’s first two novels.
“I didn’t immediately say, `Oh, best-seller,’” Adams said of “Elephants.” “But at the same time, I completely understand why it has become a best-seller.” With a man as the main character, a love triangle, evocative descriptions of circus life and the Depression, and animals portrayed with more depth than many novels’ human characters, the book has broad appeal.
The hardcover edition spent 17 weeks on the best-seller list, and Sunday marked its seventh week on the paperback chart.
Algonquin, founded in 1982, was acquired by Workman Publishing in 1989. It publishes 30 to 40 books a year—all in hardback until this year. “Elephants” was one of the first books from Algonquin Paperbacks.
From the hardback sales to the latest printing, about 906,000 copies of “Elephants” are in print. Foreign rights have been sold in 25 countries, said Ina Stern, assistant publisher at Algonquin.
Stern said book clubs are fueling much of the recent demand.
With the book’s success come two moves for the 38-year-old Gruen. One is from the Chicago area to Asheville, N.C. The other is a direct result of the “Elephants” sale: She’s leaving Algonquin for Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel’s new publishing division at Doubleday. They paid her $5.1 million for her next two books.
Algonquin is sad to lose Gruen, Stern said. But “Water for Elephants” has proved that might doesn’t always come from money.
“It is true that you can sell books the old-fashioned way, book by book, bookseller by bookeseller, and turn it into a best-seller,” Stern said.