When Rodale Books signed Martha Stewart to a $2 million contract in the summer, it was betting that the queen of domesticity was back and as popular as ever, unstained by the stock-trading scandal that sent her to prison for five months.
It appears to have been a bad bet.
"The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business" has sold roughly 37,000 copies since its publication in early October, according to Nielsen BookScan. That's a major disappointment for a celebrity author like Ms. Stewart, and it leaves Rodale, which planned an initial printing of 500,000, with a financial loss on the book, at least so far.
Ms. Stewart's book is not the only one that has fallen short of publishers' expectations in 2005. Indeed, a look back at the fall publishing season, when publishers typically release their biggest books hoping to cash in on the holidays, reveals that the publishing industry is still struggling.
There are, of course, surprise best sellers: Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking," published by Alfred A. Knopf, has sold more than 200,000 copies, according to the publisher, making it her best-selling book ever in hardcover. And "The Silver Spoon," a 1,200-page cookbook from Phaidon Press, a company better known for lavish books about art and architecture, is such a hit that some stores and online sellers are sold out of it until after Christmas.
Still, the Association of American Publishers reported last month that sales of adult hardcover books, sluggish for several years, have fallen by 2 percent so far this year. Similarly, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing bookstores, said that overall bookstore sales in the first nine months of 2005 declined 2 percent from a year ago.
Some much-anticipated novels have fallen short this fall. Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown" sold just 26,000 copies, according to BookScan, and "Wickett's Remedy," Myla Goldberg's follow-up to her heralded 2000 novel, "Bee Season," sold only 9,000.
BookScan records sales at bookstores, online booksellers and some mass merchandisers, which together typically account for 70 to 80 percent of a new hardcover's sales, meaning that actual sales of a new book are usually about one-third higher than the BookScan number. For books like "The Silver Spoon," which has sold thousands of copies through nontraditional outlets like cooking Web sites and specialty stores, sales could be double the BookScan number.
"If there's any theme to the year," said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster's flagship imprint, "it's that people only want to read the truth." So while nonfiction sales are generally good, he said, fiction sales are best defined, in Mr. Rosenthal's usual plain-spoken manner, by an expletive.
This continues a trend that began at least four years ago, when, after 9/11, a large segment of readers seemed to give up on fiction, flocking instead to nonfiction works, first about 9/11 itself, then about Islam, the Middle East, Iraq and United States politics.
Two books that are selling well ahead of expectations this fall fit that mold: "Our Endangered Values," by Jimmy Carter, an assessment of the country's current political and religious debates, published by Simon & Schuster; and "A Man Without a Country," by Kurt Vonnegut, a series of essays leavened with the author's trademark humanist view, published by Seven Stories Press.
"Both of these men have a moral profile" that is helping their books, said Jim Harris, an owner of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. He added that the authors' "authoritative voices" have attracted buyers who do not place themselves at one political extreme or the other.
Mr. Carter's book has sold nearly all of the 310,000 copies in its initial printing, said Mr. Rosenthal of Simon & Schuster, and the company has since pushed the number in circulation to 675,000. Mr. Carter has had best-selling books before, most notably his 2001 memoir, "An Hour Before Daylight," which sold 300,000 hardcover copies.
Mr. Vonnegut, too, is no stranger to the best-seller lists, but he has more often arrived there with works of fiction. His latest book, his first best seller since the 1997 novel "Timequake," has sold nearly 100,000 copies, according to the publisher, and spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also the first entry on the Times list for Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher that in 2000 published a previous book of essays by Mr. Vonnegut, "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian."
Gerry Donaghy, an inventory supervisor at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., said Mr. Vonnegut's book had attracted buyers because, at a time when political dialogue is increasingly polarized, "he is not as strident as Michael Moore or Al Franken." Besides, Mr. Donaghy added, while many new hardcover books are priced as high as $35, Mr. Vonnegut's has a relatively low list price of $23.95, and "many people are buying multiple copies to give as gifts."
Publishing, it is said, is one of the few businesses where a company makes bigger headlines for how much money it spends than for how much money it takes in. Little, Brown & Company got a fair amount of press when it paid $2 million for "The Historian," the first novel by Elizabeth Kostova, which retells the Dracula legend. In this case, the wager seems to have paid off. Booksellers lined up to have Ms. Kostova sign their advance copies at Book Expo America, the industry's annual summer convention, and BookScan has recorded sales of more than 485,000 copies.
Another big surprise is a Civil War saga that weaves intimate portraits of historical figures with real-life events. It is not, however, E. L. Doctorow's much-anticipated novel, "The March," published by Random House. It is "The Widow of the South," the first novel by Robert Hicks, published by Warner Books. According to BookScan, each book has sold just over 100,000 copies.
Jamie Raab, the publisher of Warner Books, which like Little, Brown is part of the Time Warner Book Group, credits much of the success of both "Widow of the South" and "The Historian" to a series of dinners that the publishers arranged with booksellers around the country just as early copies of the books were being shipped to stores. Such early meetings between authors and bookstore representatives have become as important to a book's marketing as the traditional author tour and book signing after a book is released, Ms. Raab said.
Many booksellers might have welcomed a similar chance to meet Ms. Stewart, but consumers exhibited relatively little interest in her book on how to build a business.
"We only sold three copies, and we had it prominently displayed," said Greg Smith, a bookseller at Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque. "It's not that the book is not being promoted, but I don't think it's the kind of thing people associate with her."
"The Martha Rules" spent just one week on The Times's five-place advice, how-to and miscellaneous best-seller list before dropping off. But Liz Perl, the publisher of Rodale Books, said the company had an "innovative and comprehensive plan to market and promote the book through the holiday season and into next year."
Readers have not lost all of their appetite for Ms. Stewart, however. Mr. Smith said Ms. Stewart's latest cookbook, "Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook," published by Clarkson Potter, a unit of Random House Inc., was selling briskly.