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The Making Of A Posthumous Best-Seller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unlikely best-seller — it's the first book in a trilogy of thrillers written by Stieg Larsson, a previously unknown Swedish journalist who died of a heart attack in 2004.

Knopf Editor-in-Chief "Sonny" Mehta, who snapped up the rights to the thrillers, says he was attracted to the "absolute ambition" of the trilogy.

"It's a multigeneration family saga. It's a story of corporate corruption, of religious fanaticism. It's about the darker elements in contemporary society," says Mehta. "And then, at its basic level, it's a kind of a classic locked-room mystery."

Still, the fact that the trilogy's author is dead complicated things. Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards began the marketing effort by romancing booksellers months before publication with a flood of advance reading copies.

"The retail channel was key," says Bogaards. "In the absence of bookseller enthusiasm you might, as a publisher, have a problem."

The goal, Bogaards says, was to build momentum in the form of advance book sales. Knopf also took out a late summer ad in The New York Times Book Review offering a free copy of the thriller to anyone who wrote asking for one.

Bloggers also got into the act: The books had already appeared on five European best-seller lists by the time Knopf secured the American rights, and many U.S.-based bloggers who had read raves about Larsson from their European counterparts had finagled copies of the books from overseas. They began touting the book early this year.

American crime fiction columnist Sarah Weinman was an early champion on her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

"What makes any crime novel work, regardless of where it's set and what it's about, is how much empathy does the writer have for his or her chosen subjects and for his characters," says Weinman. "If there's one thing that comes through besides passion, it's also empathy."

Larsson's day job was as a crusading anti-fascist journalist who was passionate in his support of anyone being victimized. He co-founded a magazine in Sweden called Expo. Daniel Poohl, a colleague at the magazine, calls Larsson "idealistic."

"[I] never met anyone like him," says Poohl. "I read the book after he died ... it was ... a way to hear Stieg's voice again."

The American edition of the novel sports enthusiastic blurbs from such best-selling authors as Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Harlan Coben. And there's also one from Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient.

"Michael Ondaatje was in the office some months ago and saw it lying around, took a copy with him to a holiday in Hawaii or something, and then phoned me and said, 'Who is this guy? What an absolutely wonderful read!' " Mehta says.

So how successful was Knopf at marketing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times best-seller list. The second novel in the series is set to come out in the U.S. next fall.

Martha Woodroof reports for member station WMRA in Harrisonburg, Va.

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Martha Woodroof