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Hobbits plan frontal attack on Harry Potter

Sunday, June 10, 2001

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Harry Potter's in for a rumble on the playground. The bespectacled Brit's grip on the kids' entertainment biz is under assault from another fictional corner of England known as Middle Earth.

Call it "The Hobbit Strikes Back" when Houghton Mifflin and New Line Cinema launch a two-pronged war on J.K. Rowling's hero this winter.

The details were among the strategies rolled out at BookExpo America last weekend in Chicago, where the publishing industry was girding for the prime fall season in the face of a slipping economy.

But financial jitters were not in evidence at the three-day trade show. Major publishers like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, TimeWarner (without the AOL logo), Holtzbrinck and its fellow German multinational Bertlesmann shipped authors in by the planeload for wining, dining and schmoozing.

To make my point, Knopf had 17 of its authors join numerous hangers-on like me at a dinner Friday. Overseeing the repast was Lidia Bastianich, the latest name in restaurateurs, who recently opened a place in Pittsburgh's Strip District. Knopf is publishing her recipe collection, "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," due in November.

The writers included Sue Miller, Jane Hamilton, Richard Russo, Peter Mayle and Andre Dubus III.

It was one of the largest writer turnouts in years at the annual gathering of independent booksellers, which has been suffering since the rise of chain bookstores in the past decade. The big publishers reduced and, for several years, had dropped their participation, but most have returned to the show, although Penguin Putnam continues to stay away.

The independents' troubles aren't over, but marketing efforts by their trade association, the American Booksellers Association, have stanched the blood flow somewhat.

For their part, the major publishers continue to invest in the traditional product -- old-fashioned books. Houghton Mifflin is mounting a major J.R.R. Tolkien campaign to coincide with the release of the first of three films based on "The Lord of the Rings" saga at Christmastime.

The other two movies will be released at Christmas for the next two years.

Houghton Mifflin first published Tolkien in 1938. This time around, it will offer a variety of Tolkien reprints in hard or softcover in that good old American tradition of product tie-ins.

The publisher's other big news is that French media giant Vivendi Universal is its new owner, meaning a multinational company owns yet another American publisher. The $2.2 billion deal was announced at the book show.

And, in conglomerate news, TimeWarner paid billionaire General Electric honcho Jack Welch $7 million for his memoir, "Jack: Straight from the Gut." Welch showed his gratitude at a breakfast talk by calling fellow panelist Wynton Marsalis "Winston" throughout his speech.

Marsalis was plugging his own book, "Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life" (Da Capo, $25), which is out this week.

Of course, it wouldn't be a BookExpo without Stephen King news. He's collaborated again with Peter Straub on a sequel to their 1981 "The Talisman" horror tale.

This one's called "Black House." Random House will release it in September.

Random, part of the Bertlesmann empire, also is doing serious literary fiction this fall, paced by Salman Rushdie's new novel, "Fury," also set for September.

That month also will see the delayed publication of Billy Collins' collection of new and selected poems, "Sailing Around the Room." The book was delayed by a dispute with the University of Pittsburgh Press, which, as Collins' previous publisher, held the rights to some of the poems in Collins' new book.

The impasse was settled early this year, thus making Billy one of the best-paid poets this side of Jewel.

Two other Random House fall titles that caught my attention were "Savage Beauty" by Nancy Milford and "Too Close to Call" by Jeffrey Toobin.

"Savage Beauty" is the first full biography of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose life not only included wonderful poetry but affairs with many (emphasis on many) important artists of the 1920s.

It is Milford's first book since the highly praised "Zelda," the 1970 bio of Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Toobin is the author of two fine accounts of Americana -- "The Run of His Life" about O.J. Simpson, and "Vast Conspiracy" on the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. His new one is embargoed until October because it is said to contain new and sensational info on the Bush-Gore election battle over Florida.

Perhaps the publisher felt a need to hype the title because it's the latest in about two dozen books on the presidential election.

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