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Books
Publishers can't resist a sure thing

Sunday, February 15, 2004

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Yes, I do go to bookstores, and not just for the folk music and NASCAR magazines.

It's instructive to see what books the stores are pushing (publishers pay for that good product placement, by the way) and what the buyers are hauling up to the registers.

On a scouting mission last week, I watched one customer fill her arms with Nora Roberts paperbacks, her face beaming. Was she anticipating a winter storm?

Another, somewhat grim-faced buyer had two diet books in hand.

This time of year, cocooning and losing weight are the trends, folks.

Before Christmas, the more expansive mood, in keeping with the season, was reflected in other selections -- $50 coffee-table tomes, $35 glossy cookbooks and $25 thick biographies.

Clearly, money was being spent on books in December, judging from the heavier traffic in the local stores.

Newly released sales figures for that month now bear out my impressions. They indicate an overall jump of 18.3 percent compared to Christmas 2002.

Statistics, however, can be misleading, as they like to say in Washington. Despite the supposed good news, the meat and potatoes of the industry, adult hardcover fiction and nonfiction and their paperback counterparts, continue to stagger.

Despite robust increases in December -- 11.9 percent and 27.7 percent, respectively -- sales for both categories were below 2002 marks.

What scored the big gains last year were "electronic," "religious" and "juvenile hardcover," that last segment's 28.5 percent rise attributed primarily to "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Lacking the ability to read tea leaves, I cannot presume to predict the future of the "traditional book" if its popularity continues to wane, albeit slightly; yet there continue to be signs that mainstream publishers are concerned.

Their strategy has been to sink more cash into sure best sellers, leaving less money to sign up new and interesting writers. Here's further evidence:

In the Feb. 8 Washington Post Book World, Robert Weil, an editor at Norton, contemplated the present publishing scene by lamenting that it now resembles "an environment that looks for affirmation more from the Price Club than from the critic."

His major complaint is that publishers are gambling big on surefire sellers (for example, Jack Welch's latest multimillion-dollar deal for his new memoir, of which not a page exists) because "a large advance, at least six figures, is required for a book to be taken seriously.

"Thus publishers gravitate all the more frequently to celebrity books and proven best-selling authors, dead and alive."

To investigate Weil's hypothesis, I inspected lists of mainstream books scheduled for publication in the months ahead, and, lo and behold, I saw dead people.

For starters, I unearthed (not really) Louis L'Amour. In May, Bantam is republishing 100,000 copies of "Hondo," the late writer's "breakthrough" Western from 1953.

Emboldened, I pressed on and found Herman Wouk, whose "The Caine Mutiny" won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize. Can he still be around? Little, Brown is releasing his novel "A Hole In Texas" in April.

Turns out, Wouk's alive and kicking at 89.

OK, so much for that theory. How about the "proven best-selling authors" who are alive? That one's on more solid ground, judging from the list of upcoming titles:

Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, Jonathan Kellerman, Larry McMurtry, Anne Rivers Siddens, Ward Just, Peter Mayle, James Patterson, Marian Keyes, V.C. Andrews, Catherine Coulter, Elizabeth Berg, Nora Roberts thrice (twice writing as J.D. Robb), Barbara Delinsky, Jennifer Cruise, John Katzenbach, Robin Pilcher, Clive Cussler, Daniel Silva, John Sanford, Robert B. Parker, Danielle Steel (twice) and Joyce Carol Oates writing as Stephen King.

(That's a joke, but both have books coming out this year.)

Most of these titles will be produced in press runs of 100,000 or more, leaving little room on the bookshop shelves for more challenging and fresh fiction.

But are those the kinds of books America wants these days? Clearly, the market indicates that they are not as essential to our culture as we'd like to let on.

Although several publishing imprints have either abandoned or ignored literary fiction, the major houses spend time and money on a few books every year that push the novel beyond the conventions of entertainment.

More research is needed to glean whether they are spending less and less, although there have been reports in the past few years of smaller and smaller advances for serious fiction.

In the meantime, a new kind of fiction has emerged -- novels by celebrities such as Carrie Fisher, Joan Collins, Jimmy Buffett and Newt Gingrich.

Those celebs who can't sit still long enough to write an adult novel write children's books.

In May, look for "What's Happening to Grandpa?" by California's first lady, Maria Shriver, illustrated by Sandra Spiedel (Warner, $15.95). It deals with Alzheimer's disease.

I have an idea for her next one: "Why Does Daddy Hug Other Women?"

Last word: Meeting popular novelist Jackie Collins, celebrity du jour Paris Hilton cooed: "If I could read a book, I'd definitely read one of yours."


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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