Fall has always been the busy season in publishing, with its inevitable crush of titles scrambling for attention and a toehold in bookstores, but at no time in recent memory has there been such a traffic jam of big-name authors unleashing top-drawer books.
Already, the October best-seller lists read like a whoís who: Mitch Albom, Bob Woodward, Frank Rich, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, John le CarrÈ, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier and Janet Evanovich.
To the great delight of retailers, autumn is packed with big-budget, name-brand writers, and winners have already begun to emerge, though there have been some crackups as well, and the climate has made it a particularly difficult season for lesser-known writers. The nonfiction star of the season, Mr. Woodwardís "State of Denial," has moved 309,000 copies since it went on sale Sept. 30, according to Nielsen BookScan, and stores are having trouble keeping the book in stock. "Right now, itís like printing money," said Gerry Donaghy, a purchasing supervisor at Powell Books, an independent bookstore in Portland, Ore.
Last week, Mr. Grisham came out with "The Innocent Man," his first work of nonfiction, a book that has inspired so much confidence in his publisher, Doubleday, that it has already printed 2.8 million copies.
The latest Bill OíReilly book, "Culture Warrior," made its debut at No. 1 on the best-seller list of The New York Times and has sold roughly 121,000 copies since it was published Sept. 15.
Among the casualties of the season have been "The Interpretation of Murder," by Jed Rubenfeld, a literary murder mystery starring a fictionalized Sigmund Freud that has fallen well short of its publisherís expectations. Also falling short has been "The Meaning of Night: A Confession," by Michael Cox, published by W. W. Norton on Sept. 18. "A Spot of Bother," by Mark Haddon, appeared briefly on the Timesís expanded best-seller list but then dropped off completely, a disappointment for an author whose last book, ëThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," spent 58 weeks on the paperback list.
Publishers and retailers are hoping for an industrywide lift during this high season, when holiday gift giving pushes up bookstore traffic. It may also be a respite for booksellers, who have been grumbling for several years about sluggish sales and a dearth of dependable blockbuster fiction.
"This is one of the best fall seasons for fiction that weíve seen in a long, long time," said Stan Hynds, a book buyer at Northshire Bookstore, an independent bookseller in Manchester Center, Vt. "The category has been hurting for a few years because political books have been so dominant, so itís nice that itís going to bounce back this season."
The lineup of writers this season includes many who have large and loyal fan bases, the kind of customers who will buy anything a favorite author writes. One of those authors, Mr. Albom, has a new book, "For One More Day," to yank at his readersí heartstrings; it has sold roughly 319,000 copies, according to BookScan. The much-anticipated "Thirteen Moons," Mr. Frazierís follow-up to his hit novel, "Cold Mountain," has been closely watched since its debut on Oct. 3. So far, 74,000 copies have been sold, according to BookScan, a sizable number for a literary novel, but hardly Albom territory.
Others are expected to sell more modestly but reliably, like Mr. le CarrÈís "Mission Song," which was published by Little, Brown on Sept. 19. "Itís like bread: grocery stores know theyíre going to sell it," said Margaret Maupin, a buyer at the Tattered Cover in Denver. "He is such a comfortable sell because people who love him will come in and ask for him." So far, the book has sold 41,000 copies.
And the next several weeks will bring potentially best-selling books by Erik Larson, whose previous nonfiction book, "The Devil in the White City," has held a place on the paperback best-seller list for more than two years; and Mr. Harris, whose "Hannibal Rising," a prequel to his "Silence of the Lambs" featuring Americaís favorite serial-killing cannibal, is to be published on Dec. 5 by Delacorte Press, a Random House imprint.
BookScan measures sales at bookstores, online retailers and some mass merchandisers, which make up roughly 70 to 80 percent of a new hardcoverís sales. (Wal-Mart, the worldís largest retailer, does not provide sales figures to BookScan.)
Publishers attribute the crowded house of fall fiction to a handful of factors, some planned and some coincidental. Since the fall months see higher sales in stores and online, publishers purposely release big books during this season to maximize attention and sales. Some authors who publish books only sporadically, like Mr. Pynchon and Mr. Frazier, happened to have new works this year, squeezing the market even more.
For companies that choose fall publication dates, it means taking a risk that a book that might snatch a best-seller list spot in a quieter month will be muscled off by an even bigger book. "Thereís some cannibalization that goes on," said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schusterís flagship imprint. "You can only carry so many books at the register."
By the same token, Mr. Rosenthal added, whatever sales might be lost because of the crowded market are usually made up in the higher sales in bookstores.
Some publishers took pains to avoid being swallowed up by the big names this season, releasing their books during quieter months. "A lot of people we have pushed to January or pulled forward to August because we knew it was going to be a killer fall," said Neil Nyren, the publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnamís Sons, a Penguin imprint. He moved one such book, "The Afghan," a novel by Frederick Forsyth, to August. "I just didnít want to plunk it down in the middle of all that," he said of October and November. "Putting it in those slots would just be killing it."
HarperCollins has chosen to wait until Jan. 9 to release "Sacred Games," a 900-page novel by Vikram Chandra that has been described as the Indian version of "The Godfather." A book by Norman Mailer, "The Castle in the Forest," will be published by Random House Jan. 23.
It appears that the crop of books by big-name authors may have squeezed out some mainstays in the fall season. For instance, celebrity memoirs are scarce, and the few examples in that category that are holding spots on best-seller lists could practically be classified as political books, like "In the Line of Fire," by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, or "Saving Graces," by Elizabeth Edwards.
One or two historical biographies usually emerge during the fall season, as "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin did last year and "John Adams" by David McCullough did in 2001. So far this year, none have occupied that space, so some bookstores are depending on the paperback version of "Team of Rivals," released on Sept. 26.
Still, Mr. Rosenthal said the fierce competition in the fall can be traced to the high level of store traffic that is irresistible to publishers. "It is Darwinian," Mr. Rosenthal said. "Some books will live, and some books will die."