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“Well, what if we put a towel on the legs so they look less, um, naked?”

You find yourself in some odd discussions in publishing, but the ones about the level of nudity on cover models are always strange – especially when the book in question isn’t a novel, much less a romance novel – it’s a college reference book, one that actually includes the word “naked” in the title. A day in the life of publishing is filled with such discussions and decisions, about details both big and small.

Just over six years ago, Sourcebooks released a book by Harlan Cohen called The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College. We shipped around 7200 copies in its first month, and in truth it was an up-hill climb. At the time, the idea of funny, student-centric, nearly 500-page advice book for college-students-to-be was something of a stretch – there simply were no successful comparable books, and as such our retailers started out cautiously.

Moreover, some wouldn’t carry the book solely because it addressed college students and included the word “naked” in the title. Imagine for yourself the numerous rejected versions of the book cover featuring a towel draped on the legs of the cover model.

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It turns out the towel didn’t solve the issue for that customer – but what did break it open was heavy reader demand and sell-through previously unheard of for the category. Harlan’s irreverent brand of real-world information not only made the perfect back-to-school gift, it was an even better graduation gift. And from there - over the course of the past six years - we’ve been able to partner with Harlan to build…

  • The new bestselling guide for parents of the college-bound, The Happiest Kid on Campus
  • The foundations of a ground-breaking “First Year Experience” curriculum for both high schools and colleges
  • And, now in its 4th edition, The Naked Roommate is not only the #1 selling going-to-college resource by a long stretch, as of last week (and after more than a quarter-million copies and six years of striving), it’s a New York Times bestseller. Even better, after those great six years with Harlan, it still feels like we’ve only just begun to bring him to the widest audience and make a difference in the lives of students the world over.

 

Would it have made a difference if we’d just put a towel on those bare legs? Would we have gotten to the same place, would it have boosted the trajectory faster, or might it have stunted the sales in other retailers? In retrospect, it’s hard to say, but it’s one more example of the seemingly minor – but actually major - decisions publishers and authors make together every day.

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