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'Oh yeah, Daniloff . . . '

October 26, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — As yet, said Houghton Mifflin editor John Sterling, the book scheduled for publication two years from now is listed simply as "untitled book on Russia." "You think it will sell?" quipped Sterling. Certainly, Sterling conceded, the fact that the book is to be written by former U.S. News and World Report Moscow Bureau Chief Nicholas Daniloff, recently released from 13 days in a Soviet prison and 17 days in the custody of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, may influence those sales. But, he insisted, that fact was not enough to make Houghton Mifflin offer a "significant six-figure" advance to a book that at least one major publisher rejected as potentially exploitative of his prison experience and lacking in general interest otherwise. "Let's face it," Sterling said from his office in Boston. "Three months from now people are going to say, 'Oh yeah, Daniloff,' but it's not going to be a big deal. They're going to remember him, and they're going to remember that it was an extraordinary incident. But he's not going to be a celebrity two years from now. He's right now something of a celebrity. He's had his 15 minutes in the spotlight." In short, Sterling went on, "We're not saying, 'Great, Nick Daniloff, in the headlines--let's get him to write a book about those 13 days, and let's get it out in eight or nine months.' " Daniloff's original manuscript arrived in the office of New York literary agent Esther Newberg three days before Daniloff was arrested by the KGB. At that time, the proposed book dealt with the story of Daniloff's great-grand-father, Alexander Frolov, sentenced to Siberia for participating in the failed uprising against Czar Nicholas I in 1825. Once the journalist was himself incarcerated, a new focus was added to the manuscript. But while stressing that it will offer "a detailed account of his recent experience, especially of his 13 days in jail," Sterling said the book Houghton Mifflin intends to publish will weave the two stories together: "One, the dramatic story of his imprisonment; and two, the remarkable story of his search for his Russian roots." In fact, said Sterling, although Daniloff began seriously working on the story of his Russian heritage more than five years ago, "really he's been working on it all his life." What will emerge, the editor said, "is not going to be a book about 'how I survived my time in jail at the hands of the brutal KGB,' " but rather "a book about the old Russia and the new Soviet Union unlike anything anyone else has written." Nonetheless, coinciding as it does with the appearance of a spate of Soviet dissident/Soviet defector books, the Daniloff deal does seem to reflect a growing interest among publishers in Soviet events. "I think we are a bit Russia-happy," Sterling said. "I'm happy about that. There's a fascination with (Soviet leader Mikhail S.) Gorbachev right now, and the longstanding interest in dissidents seems to be reaching a peak." As for his newest writer, Sterling said, "Nick Daniloff's feeling is that we just need to understand each other better if we are going to get along in a world that's threatened." Daniloff, said his editor, "is not talking about the evil empire. He's saying 'I left the Soviet Union in sorrow rather than in anger.' "

KNOCK, KNOCK: The joke du jour at Doubleday is that in honor of the company's $475-million takeover by Bertelsmann, Delacorte Books is about to be renamed. The new name: Delakraut Books. And as for how to say Doubleday in German, the answer is, of course, Bertelsmann.

SORRY, BUT THIS AUTHOR INTERVIEW MAY BE AWKWARD TO ARRANGE: "The Enchanter," the "new" novel from Vladimir Nabokov, has elicited a storm of attention. Written when Russian exile Nabokov was 40, the book was crated into a trunk when the Nabokovs headed off to the United States. The story evolved, Nabokov has written, and became the seed for "Lolita," the book regarded by many as too shocking to publish. Now that "The Enchanter" is out, translated from Russian by the author's son Dmitri, its publisher, G. P. Putnam's Sons, has received more than a few requests for interviews with Nabokov. Vladimir, not Dmitri. As gently as possible, Putnam's lets it be known that Vladimir Nabokov departed this Earth in 1977.

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