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How to make a bestseller

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I was still reading the plain-covered advance copy of "Peace Like a River," when I heard that it was on the bestseller list. For a book-section editor, this is like watching the presidential debates when the election results come in.

How could a first novel by an unknown writer appear at No. 13 on the BookSense hardcover fiction list before any major reviews or ads had appeared?

Of course, the quality of the book belongs to its author, Leif Enger (see review, page 14). But the book's pre-instant success belongs to Atlantic Monthly Press and its ability to create sophisticated buzz amid the industry's publicity din.

Almost a year ago, I met editor Elisabeth Schmitz in her office in New York. The wunderkind of literary fiction has a kind of casual elegance that made me feel more rustic than usual. Graciously trying to fill the blank pauses and ignore my staring, she asked if I attended the industry book fair in Frankfurt. "No," I replied stupidly, "I don't speak French." She never batted an eye.

Her first acquisition as senior editor for Atlantic was a debut novel called "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, which won the National Book Award in 1998. She went on to acquire another first novel called "In the Fall," by Jeffrey Lent, one of the best novels of 2000. When she said to watch out for "Peace Like a River," I took notice.

Her boss, publisher Morgan Entrekin, is a bigger-than-life figure with a mane of gray hair and that Gatsbyesque quality of talking to you as though you're the most important person in the universe.

His first love is literary fiction, those fine novels that, even in this age of giant chains, live or die on

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