Booked-Up Publishers Could Be in a Bind
Dozens of titles from big-name authors will all be on shelves soon. Marketers are trying new approaches to stand out from the crowd.
By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer
October 1, 2006
NEW YORK — This fall, the largest number of new titles by brand-name authors in recent memory is hitting bookstores, and the publishing world is asking itself an unusual question: Can there be too many good books?
As Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Lunch, a book industry website, put it, "There's a legitimate question whether this is too much at once, whether the market can handle it. There are just so many of them."
The situation has publishers trying novel marketing and publicity strategies as they struggle to get attention for their authors.
There are new books from bestselling "blockbuster" types such as John Grisham, making his first foray into nonfiction; John Le Carré; Stephen King; Michael Crichton; Robert Ludlum; James Patterson; Dean Koontz; Michael Connelly; Tess Gerritsen; David Baldacci; and Danielle Steel, all of whom rarely, if ever, publish a sales dud.
In literary fiction, there are new novels from Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Richard Ford, Mary Gordon, and Charles Frazier, his first since "Cold Mountain" 10 years ago. There is Alice Munro's latest short-story collection, and the last installment of Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" children's books.
There is a new nonfiction title from Michael Lewis, along with the second volume of Gore Vidal's memoirs, and eagerly awaited books from icons who publish very infrequently, such as Thomas Pynchon, "Silence of the Lambs" author Thomas Harris, and Joseph Wambaugh, who has his first LAPD novel since 1983. There is hot-potato political nonfiction from Bob Woodward, Frank Rich, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, John Ashcroft and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), plus a biography of Colin L. Powell.
All will be filling bookstores between now and Thanksgiving, in what is traditionally publishing's heaviest season. "It's raised the bar for everyone in the business, at the most crucial time of the year," said Sandi Mendelson, a veteran book publicist in New York.
The exposure publishers like best — a TV appearance for an author — is less of an option, according to David Rosenthal, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster. "There are too many new books to fill these slots on news, cable and magazine shows," he said. "So you have to think outside the box."
At Simon & Schuster, for example, publicists and marketing directors have been reaching out to bloggers to boost Robert Harris' political thriller "Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome."
"This isn't something I was doing a year ago, but I think it's a huge opportunity for us now," said marketing director Leah Wasielewski. "I got a fantastic response from some bloggers, and it makes sense because this approach allows us to target consumers directly and gauge their interest. You go right to the source."
Among the sites that Wasielewski contacted were Bread and Circuses (http://adrianmurdoch. typepad.com/bread_and_ circuses
), which deals with the later Roman empire; Prettier than Napoleon (http://bamber.blogspot.com
), a blog on literary and legal issues; and Mental Multivitamin (http://mentalmultivitamin.blogspot.com
) a literary site. All three generated reviews of "Imperium," she said.
But while many authors routinely use the Internet to communicate with their fan base through personal blogs and websites, some publishing executives, such as Daniel Menaker, editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group, are just now beginning to understand the medium. "For me the Web is like a teenager's room," Menaker said. "It can be very messy, and you don't quite know how to bring order to it. But you can't ignore it. You have to deal with it."
Of course, the big fall books will still have to be promoted the old-fashioned way. The Random House marketing campaign for Frazier's "Thirteen Moons," for example, includes heavy newspaper, magazine and broadcast advertising, plus a retro-feeling book tour during which the author — by choice — will be driving to about 15 cities in the South and Midwest.
Other authors whose names are not as recognizable will probably be scrambling to get whatever scraps of publicity they can. And while the bounty of new titles could generate more traffic in bookstores, publishers realize they may well pay a price for putting so much out there.
"It's a double-edged sword," Menaker said. "I think lots of people will come into the stores to buy one book, and then maybe buy another. But they won't buy 10."
Some observers wonder if publishers — eager to boost profits in what has been a financially lackluster year — have miscalculated and flooded the stores with too much. Nowadays, big books open like Hollywood movies, with on-sale dates planned months in advance. Publishers choose those dates carefully, hoping to avoid competition with similar fiction and nonfiction books from rival houses.
Unlike Hollywood studios, which can hold movies or schedule them with more precise timing, publishers have much more product to move and are at the mercy of their writers' abilities to actually deliver manuscripts. In a year that failed to produce a breakout book early on, many publishers packed as many big titles as possible into the fall season, despite the risk of over-saturating the literary market.
Jerome Kramer, editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews, said it might have made more sense to hold some titles back. "Publishing is caught up in the blockbuster mentality, and there was a clear pattern this year of saving everything up for the holiday season," Kramer said.
But few houses have the luxury of delaying the release of a product for nine months, as Sony Pictures did with its film "All the King's Men."
Indeed, publishers are betting that the sheer number of hot titles, many from authors with huge fan bases, will generate heavy bookstore traffic and online buying, which benefits all of them.
But there are predictable dips in buying behavior for any book. Readers often rush to buy a title in its first week, but then sales taper off. The heaviest and most sustained buying activity traditionally takes place after Thanksgiving, making this season's glutted market harder to gauge.
For booksellers and readers, however, the new season is something to savor. At Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, general manager Allison Hill was upbeat. "There's no downside to a plethora of good books," she said. "Not for sellers, for customers, or anyone."
Margaret Maupin, a buyer at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, believes the profusion of good books will get people talking. "This could be the year," she said, "when people buy one or two more books than they planned — and one less DVD."
Coming to shelves
Here are some of the bigger titles recently released or set to be published this fall:
"State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III"
by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster)
Woodward's latest glimpse inside the Bush White House depicts administration officials incapable of working together and in disarray over the war in Iraq. Woodward's trademark use of anecdotes is here in abundance, as in his previous books on the Bush administration, "Plan of Attack" and "Bush at War."
"Moral Disorder and Other Stories"
by Margaret Atwood (Nan Talese/Doubleday)
The author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin" offers a vibrant book of linked stories, her first collection in 15 years. With characteristic precision, Atwood renders a powerful portrait of a family's pain and domestic turmoil.
"Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell"
by Karen DeYoung (Alfred A. Knopf)
A comprehensive portrait of the son of Jamaican immigrants who rose to become Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and then secretary of State in George W. Bush's first administration. The book also includes Powell's struggle with the idea of running for president in 2000 as well as the strains of making the case for war with Iraq.
"The Innocent Man"
by John Grisham (Doubleday)
Grisham's first nonfiction book explores accusations of murder and rape in an Oklahoma town and questions the convictions of two men, one a former major league ballplayer, arguing that these were based on junk science and dubious jailhouse witnesses.
"The Lay of the Land"
by Richard Ford (Alfred A. Knopf)
In this, the third volume of the Sportswriter trilogy, Frank Bascombe has reached his mid-50s, the so-called Permanent Period of his life. But what does this mean, Ford's novel asks, and what does Frank do now? Taking place over Thanksgiving week 2000, the novel brings Frank full circle as he navigates the deep, still waters of middle-class American life.
"A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 13: The End"
by Lemony Snicket (HarperCollins)
In the finale to the series, the Baudelaire children are stranded on a desert island that's beautiful and peaceful — until the arrival of the relentless Count Olaf. The friendly island natives are led by a man with a mysterious book containing secrets about the children's parents, who died in a fire in Book 1.
"Against the Day"
by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)
Pynchon's first novel in nine years begins with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, but to call it a historical fiction is to miss the point. Rather, it's a kaleidoscopic view of humanity at a crossroads, moving from Chicago to Siberia to the Hollywood of the Silent Age, and interweaving historical figures as diverse as Nikola Tesla and Groucho Marx.
by Stephen King (Scribner)
This one is a departure by King — a book about the widow of a writer, and the process by which she comes to terms with her husband's loss. Of course, no King novel would be complete without a touch of horror, but the real subject here is the transformative, and lasting, power of love.
"Inés of My Soul: A Novel"
by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins)
A sweeping historical novel of the founding of Chile. A young wife travels to the New World in the 16th century to look for her missing husband and finds love instead with a soldier intent on building a utopian society amid the harsh conditions of colonial life.
"Hannibal Rising: A Novel"
by Thomas Harris (Delacorte Press)
This novel recounts the origins of that brilliant murderer with a taste for human flesh, Hannibal Lecter of "Silence of the Lambs." A tormented orphan on the Eastern Front, Lecter is taken to France and raised by a painter uncle and his exotic wife. There, his interests in art, food and cruelty are indulged.