By Edward Nawotka
Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- After selling more than 92,000 copies of Mitch Albom's bestseller ``For One More Day,'' Starbucks has changed course and chosen an African war memoir by an unknown, 25-year-old writer as its second venture into book sales, the company announced yesterday.
The book is ``A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) by Ishmael Beah, a onetime child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book is scheduled to go on general sale Feb. 13 and at Starbucks cafes two days later. It chronicles Beah's journey from the drug-ravaged battlefields of West Africa, where he started fighting as a hip-hop happy 13-year-old, to his reintroduction to civilian life with the help of Unicef and his eventual expatriation to the U.S., where he graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.
It's a daring selection for a company that had little to do with the book business before last year, when Starbucks began retailing Albom's frothy novel about a suicidal, alcoholic man seeking reconciliation with the ghost of his dead mother. With some 6,000 U.S. outlets, Starbucks proved an able bookseller, helping to make ``For One More Day'' a bestseller. Of course, that book was virtually a guaranteed hit: Albom already had sold some 6 million copies of his previous novel, ``The Five People You Meet in Heaven,'' and had a well-established audience.
44 Million Customers
Will the 44 million customers who enter a Starbucks store each week want to cozy up to a story full of grim details of African poverty, deprivation and gore while sipping their $4 Grande lattes? Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz thinks so.
``This is one of the most gripping books I have ever read,'' Schultz said in a prepared statement. ``We were all inspired by this tale of determination and hope and knew it was an important book to share with our customers.''
While Beah's memoir may appear to be a departure from Albom's saccharine fare, it does share a theme of redemption and rescue. Moreover, readers are not inured to such tales; ``Beasts of No Nation,'' Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel about a similar child soldier, with its brutal depictions of African warfare, won the 2006 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.
The biggest risk in this venture is being taken on by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a modest-size literary publishing house and subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC. Farrar plans a printing far in excess of the typical first run of 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a memoir by an unknown, first-time writer just to deliver adequate stock to every Starbucks outlet. If the book fails, the result may hit them hard.
Nevertheless, Starbucks appears confident. The company plans to donate $2 for every copy of ``A Long Way Gone'' sold at Starbucks to the U.S. fund for Unicef. With the announced minimum donation being $100,000, it would appear the company anticipates it will sell at least 50,000 copies of the book.
(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)