When Hachette Book Group (LGDDF) announced that its current biggest-selling author, Stephenie Meyer, would release a new book this month, publishing prognosticators thought it was a savvy move on multiple fronts. The first quarter of 2010 was the first one in nearly two years when sales of Meyer's Twilight novels -- which now top over 100 million worldwide -- began to dip, taking company profits down a peg in the process.

And the publication of The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner dovetailed perfectly with the June 30 release of the film version of Eclipse, volume three in the vampire series featuring the star-crossed romance of teenage Bella and her vampire lover Edward.

But even though opening week sales of Bree Tanner are nowhere near terrible, they don't come close to the first week performance of Meyer's previous book, Breaking Dawn. A number of factors are to blame.

Did Free Downloads Hurt Sales?

Little Brown for Young Readers, the Hachette imprint that has published all of Meyer's books since 2005, announced that within the first 48 hours of Bree Tanner's June 5 release, it sold over 350,000 copies. (Bookscan, which accounts for approximately 75% of total book sales, reported that 161,681 copies had sold during that same period, with an additional 89,549 copies sold in the U.K. in the book's first 19 hours.) Publisher Megan Tingley said in a statement that "we have every confidence that with the upcoming Eclipse movie release that Bree's shelf life will be anything but short."

But the book version of Eclipse sold 150,000 copies on its first day in 2007 (with no film to tie to and before Meyer had morphed from publishing phenomenon into cultural phenomenon), while Breaking Dawn -- the fourth and seemingly final book in the series -- moved 1.3 million copies on its opening day of release in 2008. And Bree Tanner didn't even ring up the best opening-week sales of the year: That honor went to Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, which reportedly sold 450,000 copies in its first three days of release.

Independent bookstores, meanwhile, are less than impressed with how Bree Tanner is faring. As Publishers Weekly reported yesterday, a lot of that has to do with Little, Brown making the book available for free download between June 7 and July 5. (As of June 8, 15,000 people around the world had read the online version.) Matt Norcross, owner of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., told PW that Bree Tanner's online availability for free is "clearly cutting into sales," since the store has sold only six copies of the book. Bonnie Stuppin of San Francisco's Alexander Book Company has fared even worse, selling only one of the 32 copies of Bree Tanner that she ordered. Her explanation? Virtually no word-of-mouth enthusiasm. "I don't even think my customers know it's out," Stuppin said.

Character Flaws Don't Help

The sluggish sales aren't only for indies. While Bree Tanner is among the top Kindle downloads (and the print edition is currently ranked No. 3) many Amazon (AMZN) customers are expressing their dismay that the title character has only a very loose connection to the series. "Honestly? I don't even remember who the heck Bree Tanner is," said E.A. Solinas. Another customer judged the book "a quick read but it doesn't have the quality that made the Twilight books so entrancing."

In that respect, Meyer's new book is following the pattern of another publishing success story turned cultural juggernaut, J.K. Rowling and her famous creation. Her Harry Potter novels have sold hundreds of millions of copies, but when Tales of the Beedle Bard, a companion volume loosely related to the seven-book series, was published in December of 2008, first-week sales were very strong -- nearly 370,000 copies in the first three days -- but tapered off quickly.

What would likely make Meyer's rabid fanbase and her publisher very happy is if she were to produce a new novel featuring her bestselling characters Bella and Edward. But don't hold your breath: Midnight Sun, the book that would have recounted the Twilight saga from Edward's point of view, was supposed to be Meyer's next project, but after an early draft leaked online in 2008, she said the book was "on hold indefinitely." The horror!

See our latest post on Stephenie Meyer book sales.

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