Beyond normal: new novel brings Sally Rooney mania to bookshops across UK

When they were children they lined the streets in their witch hats and capes, keen to pick up the latest Harry Potter title as bookshops opened their doors at midnight. Now they are a little older, the prospect of a tussle with some millennial emotions could see them queuing around the block again on 7 September, as dozens of bookshops plan to open early for the arrival of Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

In a nationwide promotional push, prompted by signs of big public demand, freshly printed copies of the Irish author’s third novel are to be served to customers with special commemorative merchandise as they enjoy a coffee and pastry.

But when the crumbs are wiped away and the reading starts, some early reviews suggest they may be disappointed. The Atlantic, while praising Rooney as a “great talent”, describes the characters as “a little static” and “abstractly conceived”.

Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, claimed “the book’s millennial cri de coeur can also tip into navel-gazing indulgence, heavy with the undergrad fugue of late-night dorm-room debates and clove-cigarette smoke”.

Rooney’s publisher, Faber, has organised a publicity drive not seen since the arrival of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, two years ago. This led to astronomical sales that placed the title as the fifth biggest hardback fiction seller since Nielsen BookScan’s consumer tracking records began. The Canadian author’s huge commercial success was topped later with a Booker prize win, an honour she shared with Girl, Woman, Other writer Bernadine Evaristo.

Faber is hoping its 30-year-old star writer can achieve a similar spread of popularity, pleasing both devoted fans and the literary critics, something she certainly did with her second novel, Normal People.

Across the country, 50 bookshops will be opening early, and at the grand Waterstones flagship Piccadilly shop in London the party will start the night before. Rooney is to read extracts from the new book, which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a woman, Alice, who is struggling to cope with the fame thrust upon her by early literary success. After the rave reviews, ironically, come “some negative pieces”. Tickets for the exclusive book-signing event have already sold out but there is a “curated” playlist for the book that is likely to become widely available.

Charlie Crabb, owner of the Hastings Bookshop, one of 20 independent bookshops taking part in “Rooney day”, hopes the event will help to boost his sales for the rest of autumn. “It is great to pinpoint some of the highlights of September, which is always a big month. It elevates them from the rest of the titles,” he said.

For Waterstones, the dominant British literary chain of stores, the value of capitalising on Rooney’s reputation is clear. “The release of Sally Rooney’s third novel is the most exciting and eagerly anticipated moment in this year’s literary calendar,” Bea Carvalho, Waterstones fiction buyer, told The Bookseller.

All the fuss, of course, follows the storming hit of Normal People, which also became a hit television drama for the BBC last year. Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, which had its own large and distinct fanbase, is now being adapted for the screen. Both earlier novels are already credited with single-handedly boosting international book sales, together generating sales of £6.18m in Britain by summer last year.

In Hastings, Crabb has just as high expectations of another upcoming publication: Evaristo’s new book, Manifesto on Never Giving Up, which is out in October. He has noticed that Evaristo’s strong pre-sales online for signed editions are matching Rooney’s.

Harry Potter
More than two decades on from her first book about a boy wizard, JK Rowling’s publisher, Bloomsbury, is still celebrating her game-changing children’s series annually on the first Thursday in February, with special kits created for schools, libraries and shops. Last year’s book night was themed around the Triwizard Tournament, and this year’s book night, which was postponed as a result of Covid, recreated the fictional Diagon Alley online and took place on 24 June instead.

The Handmaid’s Tale
When Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments came out in 2019, the event was impossible to avoid. Hooded women stalked the streets to mark the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. As a result, publisher Vintage sold 103,177 hardback copies in the first week, more than double the number of any other title at that point in the year.

Klara and the Sun
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, came out in March and gave a shot in the arm for booksellers suffering from store closures during the pandemic. His first novel since he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2017, it is told from the perspective of an AI “friend” waiting to be purchased. Film rights were acquired before publication. The film, produced by Potter producer David Heyman and Rosie Alison, is being backed by Sony Pictures in a collaboration with publisher HarperCollins. Longlisted for the 2021 Booker prize, it led the competing pack for sales by a country mile.

Manifesto on Not Giving Up
After sharing her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood in 2019 for Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo has become a prominent literary figure. Her non-fiction account of how she got there, Manifesto on Not Giving Up, is out on 7 October and pre-sales indicate big public interest. Publisher Hamish Hamilton is marking the day with a series of events, including a personal appearance four days earlier at the Southbank Centre where Evaristo will be interviewed by Afua Hirsch.

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