Sunday, September 10, 2006

Battle of the Big Books
By ROBERT J. HUGHES, The Wall Street Journal

It's a literary slugfest.

Between now and Thanksgiving, booksellers will host the biggest fall rollout of heavyweight authors in years. In what's being called a remarkable coincidence -- or a colossal case of bad timing -- publishers will release titles from John Grisham, Stephen King, John le Carré, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler and Janet Evanovich. Fall brings the first Thomas Pynchon novel in nine years, another book from the best-selling author Mitch Albom and the long-awaited second novel from Charles Frazier, the author of "Cold Mountain." New works are also on the way from Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende and Gore Vidal.

For avid readers, the blockbuster release schedule promises a feast. And for publishers, it represents a chance to salvage what has been a disappointing year. But for authors and the industry, the crowded season also presents huge risks. There are 15 new titles on the way from writers with No. 1 best sellers to their credit, but presumably not everyone will hit No. 1 this time around. Many of these household names -- including Bob Woodward and Jimmy Carter, also out with new titles -- could suffer from underexposure. Debut novelists could get lost altogether.

"It's actually terrifying," says Jonathan Burnham, publisher and senior vice president at HarperCollins, which is putting out new works this fall by Mr. Crichton, Ms. Evanovich and Ms. Allende, as well as Elizabeth George and Tony Hillerman. To avoid the autumn onslaught, Mr. Burnham moved the release of one of his most promising titles, the Mumbai mobster epic "Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra, to January.

The crowded fall schedule partly reflects increasing pressure on publishers to deliver profits to their corporate parents. Hardcover sales were down 12% in the first six months of the year, and this summer saw slow sales and no blockbusters. Despite new novels by big-name authors including John Updike and James Patterson, the summer didn't have a Harry Potter (like 2005's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") or even a hit along the lines of 2002's "The Lovely Bones." Now, the industry is pinning its turnaround hopes on the Christmas shopping season, traditionally the year's strongest period. Read the whole article here.

We talked to booksellers, publishers and authors to get a handle on how well this fall's crop will do. Here's a look at a baker's dozen of the biggest books, in order of publication:

IMPERIUM Robert Harris Simon & Schuster / Sept. 19
PLOT: Cicero's secretary and slave narrates his rise to power in ancient Rome, from struggling lawyer to the brink of becoming a consul. It's the first novel in a trilogy. Mr. Harris says in an interview that he's trying to show "the excitement of the political game...with definite shades of Clinton or Blair or whoever."
BACKSTORY: Mr. Harris got the idea for a series of books about Roman politics while working on "Pompeii," his look at the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
OUTLOOK: Could do well if the taste for Roman history remains strong. "Pompeii" sold three million copies and spent several months on best-seller lists in the U.S.

THE ROAD Cormac McCarthy Alfred A. Knopf / Sept. 26
PLOT: Lawless gangs stalk the country in a postapocalyptic America, and a father and son walking through the land defend themselves with a loaded pistol and their ingenuity.
BACKSTORY: Mr. McCarthy's 2005 "No Country for Old Men" sold 140,000 copies in hardcover, and has just been filmed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen ("Fargo") for release next year. This novel's timing was a surprise to Knopf, which hadn't expected something from Mr. McCarthy so quickly (he usually takes several years between books). It's printing 150,000 copies.
OUTLOOK: Even though Mr. McCarthy doesn't tour and rarely grants interviews, his last few books have been best sellers. His thrillers have the veneer of literary fiction, due to his stylized, laconic prose, yet his books appeal to a wider range of readers than many literary works.

THE INNOCENT MAN John Grisham Doubleday / Oct. 10
PLOT: The book is about the troubled life of Ronald Keith Williamson, a second-round draft pick with the Oakland Athletics in the 1970s who was convicted in the late '80s of raping and killing a waitress in Oklahoma. Just days before his execution in 1999, Mr. Williamson was freed by DNA evidence, yet died a few years later of drug and alcohol abuse.
BACKSTORY: Mr. Grisham got the inspiration from Williamson's obituary. This is his first nonfiction book, yet Doubleday feels it can be as successful as his thrillers. It has themes familiar from Mr. Grisham's other works, such as the fallibility of the justice system and especially the death penalty.
OUTLOOK: Mr. Grisham is one of the biggest and most reliable best-selling authors around. Doubleday is printing 2.8 million copies, remarkable for nonfiction, and instead of giving Mr. Grisham his usual January/February release, it's going for the big Christmas market. Barnes & Noble buyer Sessalee Hensley says that when the book was listed months ago on its Web site it shot to No. 1, "an indication of how strong it will be."

ONE GOOD TURN Kate Atkinson Little, Brown / Oct. 11
PLOT: During the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, a murder draws in a real estate tycoon's wife, a crime novelist and a police detective.
BACKSTORY: Ms. Atkinson won the 1995 Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book Awards) for her first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum." Her last book was a thriller, "Case Histories," that brought rapturous reviews. This novel features the same detective.
OUTLOOK: Ms. Atkinson has had respectable U.S. sales; "Case Histories" sold 200,000 copies in trade paperback. BookSense has chosen "One Good Turn" as its top pick for October, so it will get attention at the store level.

LISEY'S STORY Stephen King Scribner/ Oct. 24
PLOT: Lisey is the wife of a famous author who's been dead for two years. After her catatonic sister begins to speak in her late husband's voice, Lisey uncovers clues about his horrific childhood.
BACKSTORY: Following his return to full-fledged horror with last year's "Cell," Mr. King takes on marriage in an eerie tale that has reminded some booksellers of his 1997 best seller, "Bag of Bones." Early reviews have been excellent: Publisher's Weekly gave it a star, calling it "disturbing" and "powerful."
OUTLOOK: It would be scary if the book didn't sell well. Mr. King has been on best-seller lists since the 1970s, and Scribner is printing more than a million copies in anticipation of huge demand.

POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION Gore VidalDoubleday / Nov. 7
PLOT: Mr. Vidal recounts his move from Ravello in Italy to Los Angeles after his life partner dies. He also reminisces about the many famous people he knew and offers tidbits such as his suggestion to President Kennedy that he begin something that evolved into the Peace Corps.
BACKSTORY: Mr. Vidal, 80, has had a literary career dating to the 1940s. This memoir deals more openly than any of his books with Howard Austen, his partner of five decades. Mr. Vidal contends that, unlike some memoirists, "I don't tell lies."
OUTLOOK: It could be tough to crack the best-seller list, though not impossible. Mr. Vidal's last memoir, "Palimpsest," was a best seller, but that was more than a decade ago, and literary memoirs are less likely best-seller candidates than they once were. Mr. Vidal continues to tell amusing stories about iconic celebrities, yet most are now dead.

NATURE GIRL Carl Hiaasen Alfred A. Knopf / Nov. 14
PLOT: As convoluted as any of Mr. Hiaasen's novels. This one involves a bipolar do-gooder named Honey Santana, who gets involved with a nefarious telemarketer, a drug-runner and an alligator wrestler.
BACKSTORY: Mr. Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, has become publishing force, with books for adults ("Strip Tease") and young people ("Hoot," recently made into a movie). His adult hardcovers regularly sell 500,000 copies.
OUTLOOK: "It's daunting and humbling" to be up against the megasellers, Mr. Hiaasen says, "but you can't lose sleep over it." Mr. Hiaasen has a lot of readers, though. Knopf plans a half-million first printing, the author's biggest ever.

AGAINST THE DAY Thomas Pynchon Penguin Press, Nov. 21
PLOT: The story is a secret and the publisher is mum. In Penguin Press's catalog, Mr. Pynchon says that the novel takes place between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the immediate post-World War I years, moving from the American West to Siberia.
BACKSTORY: Mr. Pynchon, known for his modernist classics "Gravity's Rainbow" and "The Crying of Lot 49," is famously reclusive. He published his last novel, "Mason and Dixon," in 1997.
OUTLOOK: Considering that the publication of every Pynchon novel is an event, and his last book was a best seller, it's likely the new one will be, too.

NEXT Michael Crichton HarperCollins / Nov. 28
PLOT: His publisher won't spill all the beans, but says Mr. Crichton takes on genetic experimentation and the collision between big business and science. He also explores how a person's DNA might make him or her a little too valuable to a drug company.
BACKSTORY: Mr. Crichton is known for the topicality of his what-if scenarios, including "Jurassic Park" and "Prey." His last novel, "State of Fear," in 2004, cast environmental activists as bad guys and questioned global warming.
OUTLOOK: Publisher HarperCollins has announced a first printing of two million copies. Ever since "The Andromeda Strain" in 1969, Mr. Crichton has been a best-selling author.
Sept. 8, 2006 Battle of the Big Books

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