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Case Study: How Penguin Press Made 'Little Fires Everywhere' a Roaring Success

Posted by Suzanne on May 31, 2018
"The firemen said there were little fires everywhere," Lexie said. "Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident."
[Little Fires Everywhere]

It’s no accident Celeste Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, has spent 35 weeks on The New York Times’ Hardcover Fiction list. The Penguin Press team strategically sparked and built interest with four critical audiences—readers, booksellers, librarians, and media—using multiple channels to drive awareness, anticipation, and early reviews. Along the way, they also benefited from some unexpected accelerants that further fueled the fire. Today, Little Fires Everywhere has an astounding 161,812 ratings, making it the number one most-rated book on Goodreads that was published in 2017. Even more impressive is that the book has an average rating of 4.16—it is significantly harder for a book to maintain such a high average rating across so many readers.

How this book became such a success story offers insights for publishers and authors preparing their own book marketing strategies, so we talked with Matt Boyd, associate publisher and marketing director at Penguin Press, to learn more.

“We were all huge fans of Celeste’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You,” he said. “So we were excited—and a bit nervous, honestly—to read the new manuscript. Could it possibly be as good, or even better, than the first? But we all loved it from the first page, breathed a big sigh of relief, and then felt a different kind of stress: We realized we had a big opportunity—and responsibility—to help Ng reach even more readers with this new book.”

For the Penguin Press team, a key part of their plan was Goodreads, where Ng had already won over so many fans. “We’ve found Goodreads is one of the best ways of building real, tangible buzz among readers, and reaching their community was a key part of our marketing campaign” said Boyd. “It’s safe to say that the Goodreads community helped make Little Fires Everywhere such a big success.”

Ng was one of the earliest members of the Goodreads community, joining in May 2007, just a few months after Goodreads launched. She started participating on Goodreads because of her own passion for reading. With the publication of her first novel in 2014, Everything I’ve Never Told You, she transitioned from a member profile to an author profile on Goodreads. Ng is an excellent example of an author who really understands what works well on Goodreads, continuing to share reviews of what’s she reading (check out her 2017 Year in Books), as well as answering questions from readers about her own books.

In an interview with Poets & Writers, Ng said, “I think the site has helped people discover the book. My sense is that it’s an an amplified version of friends recommending books to other friends.”

Key Insights

With this case study, you’ll learn about several strategies that worked well, including:

  • Getting copies of the book into the hands of as many readers as possible months before publication to generate reviews
  • Leveraging the power of social amplification on Goodreads
  • Building a fan base on Goodreads and targeting those fans with book marketing tools
  • Using the early Goodreads reviews to help fine-tune marketing copy
  • Adopting a snowball effect, where multiple activities in different channels combined to create a bigger impact

Social Amplification on Goodreads

You’ll see the Goodreads social amplification effect throughout the case study. This is because social sharing is built into every activity on Goodreads. When people enter a giveaway, a story appears in the newsfeed of their friends, essentially creating a mini advertisement for the book. When someone posts a review, a story shows up in the newsfeed, helping more people discover books to read. And if someone hears about a great book in the media and adds it to their Want to Read shelf, their friends see this in their newsfeed, providing another wave of reminders about the book.

The Journey to the Bestseller Lists

In this case study, we’ll be following a journey that runs from January 2017 to April 2018. As you can see from the visual below, it doesn’t look like a lot was happening in the first six to seven months, but as we’ll show you, some early activity was taking place that would combine over time into a bigger impact.




Building Pre-release Buzz (January - May 2017)



The Penguin Press marketing and publicity team plotted out a year-long campaign, with major milestones in nearly every month leading up to publication. They targeted four distinct audience groups: booksellers, readers, librarians, and media.

In January 2017, nine months before the book was due to come out in September 2017, the Penguin Press marketing team focused on booksellers—a crucial audience who had been very supportive of Ng's first book. They also brought Ng to Winter Institute, a conference of independent booksellers that takes place in January each year, and handed out galleys there. In addition, they sent galleys to influential booksellers across the country.

The next step was to focus on readers. Thanks to the success of Everything I Never Told You, Ng had built up a solid fan base on Goodreads. Getting this key audience excited and aware of the new book was the focus in February 2017. Ng's announcement on Goodreads and Twitter that Little Fires Everywhere was now available for pre-order helped kick-start some early Want to Read shelvings of the book on Goodreads and started the social amplification effect.

To reach more early readers, Penguin Press also made ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) available on NetGalley and Edelweiss. Meanwhile, the Penguin Press publicity team swung into action, sending early copies to media contacts. Soon they had secured an exclusive cover reveal and excerpt with EW.com.

March 2017 was when the Penguin Press sales team really kicked into gear, with sales reps sharing ARCs with booksellers and librarians. In addition to securing strong orders, they were hoping to land Little Fires Everywhere on the IndieNext list (based on nominations by independent booksellers), the LibraryReads list (based on nominations by librarians), and all the retailer “Best of the Month” lists.

On Goodreads, the first big spike in interest came from a pre-review by Goodreads member Maxwell, one of the top 100 reviewers on Goodreads. Maxwell had been a huge fan of Ng's first book, and, as a result of Maxwell sharing his excitement about the news that the second book would be coming out, Maxwell’s friends and followers added the book to their Want to Read shelves and started another wave of social amplification.

In April 2017, Penguin Press ramped up their pre-marketing with Goodreads. The team ran the first of what would be six Goodreads Giveaways and mailed ARCs to some key Goodreads reviewers who were fans of Ng's first book.

As a result, the essential early buzz started to build with readers, and by the end of May 2017 (three months before publication), Little Fires Everywhere already had 4,888 Want to Read shelvings and 23 reviews.

Stoking the Fires in the Lead-up to Publication (June - August 2017)



To keep the momentum going, the Penguin Press team ran more giveaways on Goodreads in May, June, and July, which continued to build an audience of readers who had added Little Fires Everywhere to their Want to Read shelves.

At BookExpo at the end of May/early June, Penguin Press ran a major ad campaign to reinforce to booksellers that this was going to be one of Penguin Press’ big books for the fall, and to further generate interest and awareness. Starred early reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, LibraryJournal, and Booklist came out, further building support and anticipation for the book.

In late June, Angela M, one of the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads, gave a 5-star review of the book. This drove another spike in people adding the book to their Want to Read shelves and continued to drive more discovery of the book on Goodreads over several days.



As a result of the large number of fans the book had won in the librarian community, Little Fires Everywhere was also selected as the Favorite book in the September LibraryReads list. Billed as “the top 10 books published this month that librarians across the country love,” the September LibraryReads list was announced in early August and drove another wave of Want to Read shelvings. The list is shared widely, and Goodreads has many librarians in its community who are friends with other librarians and readers.

Rave reviews continued to come out on Goodreads, and the Penguin Press team analyzed these to help shape their messaging with ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon Marketing Services. “We look at the words people use to describe a book to understand how readers talk about it with their friends,” said Boyd. “We’re constantly tweaking ads and seeing what works."

Thanks to the number of Goodreads members adding Little Fires Everywhere to their Want to Read shelves, the book started trending on Goodreads and was selected for the Editorial team’s data-driven blog post “21 Big Books of Fall” (which was also published in Buzzfeed).

By the end of August (12 days before publication), Little Fires Everywhere had 169 reviews, and 15,335 people had added it to their Want to Read shelves, a clear signal of the huge anticipation building for the book.

The Key 8 Weeks Around Publication (September - October 2017)
Publication Date: September 12, 2017



It was at this point—perfectly timed for the lead-up to publication on September 12, 2017—when things really caught fire.

September kicked off with the news that Little Fires Everywhere had been selected as an IndieNext Pick and a selection of the Book of the Month Club. There was also high-profile print media coverage, in publications including Real Simple, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Marie Claire.

On September 1, Little Fires Everywhere was featured in the Goodreads New Releases email, which goes out to 36 million members. This influential email highlights some of the most popular trending new books published that month and is a significant driver of book discovery on Goodreads. The New Releases email drove thousands of Want to Read shelvings over Labor Day weekend and early September.



Thanks to the success of Ng's first novel and all of the giveaways they ran for Little Fires Everywhere, Penguin Press had now built up a sizeable audience to target with one of Goodreads’ most popular book marketing products: a Personal Selection Mailer. This gives publishers the opportunity to send a warm, friendly, and personal message from an author to their fans, and includes links to retailers to convert these interested readers into buyers just as the book comes out. This email went out on September 6, helping drive another significant spike in people adding the book to their Want to Read shelves as well as pre-orders.

“Publishing around a holiday like Labor Day is a bit nerve-racking,” said Boyd. “Things seemed relatively quiet in late August, but then everyone must have come back from vacation on the same day, and they all seemed to be looking for their next must-read book. In the first 11 days, the number of Want to Read shelvings on Goodreads doubled.”

By the day before publication, 30,089 people had put the book on their Want to Read shelves, and there were 226 reviews, the majority of them sharing how much they loved the book.

Notable Readers

Remember the unexpected accelerants we mentioned at the beginning? September 12 was not only publication day, but also when actor, producer, and famous book lover Reese Witherspoon announced that she had chosen Little Fires Everywhere for her popular #RWBookClub. Later, in early October, Witherspoon held a Facebook Live discussion with Ng. As Witherspoon's team promoted the discussion on Instagram, more people discovered the book and added it to their Want to Read shelves.

“There’s a new generation of book clubs springing up—from Reese Witherspoon to Emma Roberts, from The New York Times and PBS to Barnes & Noble—and it’s fascinating to see how they’re engaging readers in new ways,” said Boyd.

Goodreads Influencers

Another accelerant on Goodreads came from some of the most influential reviewers on Goodreads. First, Emily May, the most popular reviewer on Goodreads—with more than 100,000 friends and followers—posted a positive review on September 14.

Meanwhile, The Traveling Sisters group on Goodreads, started by Canadian sisters Brenda and Norma, had picked Little Fires Everywhere as their “sister read.” The invite-only group includes several of the most popular reviewers on Goodreads, and as their reviews came out, they fueled a series of spikes in Want to Read shelvings at a time when the book was already earning hundreds of Want to Read shelvings per day. Combined, these popular reviewers have thousands of followers, who saw their book reviews in their Goodreads newsfeeds. As they liked and commented on the reviews, they created more stories about the book in the newsfeeds of their friends, creating more awareness and buzz about the book.

As a signal of just how powerful this group of reviewers is, today 11 of the 30 most popular reviews for Little Fires Everywhere are by members of The Traveling Sisters group.

Brenda and Norma create discussion boards on The Traveling Sisters for each book, and Susanne, one of the group members and a top 50 most popular Goodreads reviewer, said that it led to “a very lively, extremely emotional discussion about the dynamics between mothers and daughters. It tore at all of us. Celeste Ng is masterful at this.”

On September 21, an interview with Ng was featured in the Goodreads Newsletter (which goes out to 41 million members twice a month), which drove another major spike in interest. Ng was selected by the Goodreads Editorial team for an interview due to her popularity on Goodreads and the growing interest in Little Fires Everywhere among Goodreads members in the lead-up to publication.

Thanks to this reader buzz, fabulous media coverage, the book club picks, and a months-long tour, it was no surprise that Little Fires Everywhere debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times' Hardcover Fiction list.

The Goodreads Choice Effect (November - December 2017)



The book continued on the bestseller lists through the fall. Then at the end of October, due to rave reviews and the overall popularity of the book on Goodreads, Little Fires Everywhere was a nominee for the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards in the Fiction category. The Goodreads Choice Awards are the only major book awards decided by readers, and in 2017, there were 3.8 million votes to decide the winners across 20 categories.



On December 5, the winners were announced, and Little Fires Everywhere won Best Fiction of 2017. As you can see from the graph above, the impact on the book on Goodreads was dramatic! This was a book that had been on the bestseller lists for weeks and had already been discovered by 122,537 people. Such is the power of the Goodreads Choice Awards that another 17,709 members added it to their Want to Read shelves in a single day. The Goodreads Choice Awards also drive sales, and the Penguin Press team saw a spike in purchases as a result. Thanks to winning the award, the book saw a steep change in the number of people adding the book to their Want to Read shelves, which has continued to this day.

Now in Orbit (2018)



One of our favorite quotes about book marketing is from publishing industry consultant Michael Shatzkin: "Books have always been launched like rockets. The publisher commits maximum firepower to getting them off the ground. Most crash to earth. Some go into orbit." By the end of December 2017, Little Fires Everywhere was clearly one of those rare books that has made it into orbit. It was on the “best books of 2017” lists by Amazon, NPR, People, The Washington Post, Audible, and more. And as noted in the introduction of this case study, it’s continued to stay on the bestseller lists.

And the power of the Goodreads Choice Awards effect continues! As you can see from the visual above, the Goodreads Choice Awards drive significant discovery and interest months beyond the announcement of winners.

Yet the story doesn’t end here. In early March 2018, Witherspoon and Kerry Washington announced they are producing and starring in a TV series based on Little Fires Everywhere. This led to yet another spike in people adding the book to their Want to Read shelves, and we expect to see more people discovering and reading the book as we get closer to the TV series launch.



Around 800 Readers Are Marking Little Fires Everywhere As “Read” Every Day



Of course, while driving discovery is critical, publishers and authors want to see people buying and reading the book. Looking at the visual above, it’s clear that people were eager to start reading the book as soon as it was published. The number of people marking the book as “read” on Goodreads quickly climbed within days of publication and continued through the end of the year. Thanks to the Goodreads Choice Awards and all of the “best of 2017” lists, it looks like the book made it to the top of many people’s Want to Read lists at the beginning of the year as there’s a steep climb in early January that continues through May. An average of 800 people are marking the book as “read” every day on Goodreads. As noted at the beginning of this case study, the book now has 161,812 ratings, making it the number one most-rated book on Goodreads that was published in 2017.

Ultimately, though, all the great book marketing tools in the world would not have worked without an amazing story. Goodreads can only help amplify the success of a good book. In the end, the story stands on its own. And in the case of Little Fires Everywhere, there’s a reason why the book continues to be on the bestseller lists. It’s a story that has clearly caught fire with readers.


Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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message 1: by M. (new)

M. Jones Getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible. Great tip. Except that the Goodreads Giveaways are now very expensive to run (especially for print books) and for those of us outside the US, it's impossible to give away either print or ebooks through Amazon (even if you have a. com account - they don't like billing adresses overseas). So what's the solution? Author copies and sending them out yourself? Also very pricey.


message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy Love seeing how one reviewer can have such an impact!


message 3: by Kim (new)

Kim Cano As an Indie women's fiction author, I found this post helpful. While I don't have Penguin Press budget and media connections, I'll definitely implement the strategies I can afford from this case study for my next book launch.


message 4: by Claire (new)

Claire Gem M. wrote: "Getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible. Great tip. Except that the Goodreads Giveaways are now very expensive to run (especially for print books) and for those of us outside th..."

You are so right. I used to run Goodreads Giveaways all the time for my award-winning, self-published titles. Now, between the cost of the Giveaway, the books, and the mailing, it's no longer an enticing option - and would cost as much as a Bookbub campaign. It's unfortunate that Goodreads has chosen to limit this advertising option to the big publishers and the wealthy.


message 5: by Wanda (new)

Wanda Luthman Wow! This is a dream come true for an author. Thank you for sharing this journey. It is indeed inspiring!! And now I'm going to have to put Little Fires Everywhere on my TBR.


message 6: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Congratulations to her ... sounds like an impossible dream. Years ago I did a book tour and gained some interest, then I never did another giveaway until a month or two ago for new book.

Goodreads did my Giveaway and handled everything. They even sent digital copies to the ten winners! I will do this again. I don't have a Penguin budget, or helpers either, but haven't lost HOPE yet.

Why? Because I believe I have a good product and some avenue will work for my stories. Going to write again and again!

I will put this fire book on my to read list. For any reviewers out there my books are Chocolate For Lilly and Three King Mackerel and a Mahi Mahi, a historical fiction and a spy thriller (so appropriate).


message 7: by Aza (new)

Aza M. wrote: "Getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible. Great tip. Except that the Goodreads Giveaways are now very expensive to run (especially for print books) and for those of us outside th..."

yep, it really sucks!


message 8: by Renée (new)

Renée Ebert Claire wrote: "M. wrote: "Getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible. Great tip. Except that the Goodreads Giveaways are now very expensive to run (especially for print books) and for those of us..."


Says it all, doesn't it? I am amazed that more writers don't see how very special these "special" people really are.


message 9: by V.A. (new)

V.A. Trafton Congrats to Celeste Ng!


message 10: by Tai (new)

Tai Stith Thank you for publishing this case study. As a graphic designer and indie YA author, I've been studying the book industry like mad, both to help my own books and the books of the authors I design covers for. Yes, Goodreads giveaways are spendy, but taking time and effort to do marketing before a release is key, I think. Thanks for the info!The Incredible Secrets of Hadley Hill


message 11: by Linda (new)

Linda Hill Thank you so much for publishing this. As an indie author, I don't have the budget to implement anything like this, but it's good to know that it CAN be done and where to concentrate my efforts(and budget). I have a lot to learn, but this was one of the most helpful and comprehensive things I've read. Also congratulations to Celeste Ng. The Anchor is the Key


message 12: by M. (last edited Jun 05, 2018 12:33AM) (new)

M. Jones Hi Linda and Tai,
I'd agree but I also think Goodreads needs to know how dissatisfied some of us are about the change to Giveaways, and they've given us precious little means to do this, apart from griping on blogs about other people's success. I'm sure Celeste Ng's books are wonderful and I apologise to her for being all grouchy, but being told to give more books away when it costs so much is hard to take. This is one of the few avenues we have at the moment for feedback on the new policy. (Oh, and of course now it's US-centric too: sorry potential fans in the rest of the world...)


message 13: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Hampton This is interesting, but you sort of lost me in the second sentence with the words "the Penguin Press team." What wouldn't I give to have a "team" from Penguin Press or any other well-known publisher working on my behalf.

Aransas Morning


message 14: by Haru (new)

Haru Ichiban Thank you for sharing. I eagerly await the time when I can do this as well.


message 15: by Cayr (new)

Cayr Claire wrote: "M. wrote: "Getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible. Great tip. Except that the Goodreads Giveaways are now very expensive to run (especially for print books) and for those of us..."

I agree. the expense makes it unreachable for some indie authors.


message 16: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Rutledge Excellent article!! Very inspiring for an Indie author as the date for publication of my second book approaches.


message 17: by LaVerne (new)

LaVerne Clark What a wonderful, insightful article. Thanks for sharing. Congratulations, Celeste Ng, on the success of your writing! And what a great shout-out to the fabulous reviewers who helped make it happen. That must be thrilling to know you've helped shape a career - and now a TV show! :) I'm off to put this on my want to read before making a stop to Amazon.


message 18: by Mark (new)

Mark D Swartz MS. NG'S ROLE IN MARKETING?

Excellent case study of a large publisher employing multiple marketing approaches. Congratulations to Celeste Ng for authoring the superb "content" (read: outstanding novel) that is the "product."

My question is: What did Celeste herself do after finishing writing to promote her book, before the launch? I presume she was filling her days blogging, posting on social media, lining up interviews, etc.

For us self-published folk without the massive thrust of a powerful Penguin behind us, it is the author's promotional efforts that are most crucial.

Some insights here would be very helpful. :-)


message 19: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Sharp Thank you for publishing this success story! As the author of over forty titles, I appreciate this advice.


message 20: by Miguel (new)

Miguel Lopez Goodreads have to create strategies for Spanish speaking authors and readers, better prices for giveaways, language options at webpage, emails, newsletters.


message 21: by Nicole (last edited Jun 17, 2018 06:02AM) (new)

Nicole Archer This is only relevant to big publishers with massive ad money. Now that goodreads has priced giveaways past any sort of decent rate of return, small and indie presses would rather spend money on a platform that converts. While my giveaways prior to that added people to a list of to-reads, my books often ended up in the hands of the wrong target, i.e. male readers for romance? And they often left no reviews and were never influencers.


message 22: by Terence (new)

Terence Park Nicole wrote: "Now that goodreads has priced giveaways past any sort of decent rate of return ..."

Goodreads is owned by Amazon, the rest speaks for itself.


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