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Over Booked? : Culture: Do book parties really boost sales? Or are they just a way for publishers to stroke authors' egos?

October 17, 1994|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Washington may have its interminable fund-raisers for candidates and causes, and Los Angeles its screenings structured as elaborately as the Catholic Church. But New York's defining early evening ritual is book parties. They're always 6 to 8 and their purpose is not necessarily literary.

The right book party can create a perfect Manhattan moment when the pecking order is clear, food and alcohol are free, and conversation roars along. So it was important to attend three splashy mid-town book parties on a damp fall night and scope the authors, the talk and the hors d'oeuvres. (Never mind that in a downtown loft a less noteworthy author was being feted with a single wheel of Brie.)

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The food triumphed at the Old World Russian Tea Room, where 200 people celebrated Lauren Bacall and her second shot at self-revelation called "Now." There was enough shrimp, duck, smoked salmon and caviar to sate the ciphers. Bacall, in a black Armani pantsuit, made a dramatic entrance a little late and, of course, George Plimpton was there.

Only briefly did the social order break down when an admirer unsuccessfully tried to get Betty Bacall's attention--everyone in-the-know calls her "Betty." As the admirer anxiously waited for her to finish another conversation, he turned to a smallish man in a Nehru-style jacket at her side, and thinking him a waiter, demanded a drink. The man looked startled. He was Bacall's publisher, Knopf czar Sonny Mehta. The admirer looked chagrined and quickly disappeared after a real waiter balancing a silver tray of drinks.

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Five blocks south at the "21" Club, Joe Heller--everyone in Manhattan calls him "Joe," thank you very much--bounded past the line of statutes of jockeys out front to be in place before his guests arrived. Heller, author of "Closing Time: The Sequel to Catch-22," had the extraordinary dignity to greet just about all of his 150 guests at the door.

"Didn't go to Joe Heller's," Plimpton said. "Should have."

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At a third party, this one at the historic Century Club, first-time author Ina Caro moved cheerily among longtime friends and famous people. Her new book, "The Road From the Past," is a combination history, guidebook and personal account of traveling in France. Plimpton was on her list but was waylaid at Bacall's. But Alan J. Pakula made it to both Bacall's and Caro's parties and somebody in this great metropolis probably hit the trifecta and made it to Heller's too.

Caro has been a much celebrated author in recent weeks. She's had seven book parties since late August, including a luncheon at Le Cirque for 10 and a luncheon at the Sag Harbor home of Betty Friedan for 140.

"My husband (Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Robert Caro) has been first on the bestseller list and wins every prize around and he's only had one book party," Caro said.

Go figure.

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Again, these parties are about a lot of things, but not necessarily literary stature.

In Caro's case, she is quite social and has many influential friends who are pleased about her accomplishment, which adds up to a lot of parties. Bacall, on the other hand, demanded star treatment from her publisher and only the Russian Tea Room would do.

And as for that kid in Soho, well, his cousin had an extra wheel of Brie.

In fact, book parties have long been declared useless. And it's not quite clear what good the publisher gets out of the much-heralded "buzz" they create in New York's gossip columns. Most publishers and editors insist that money spent on a party would be better applied to send an author to a few more cities on a publicity tour.

The book-party-as-stroking-of-an-author's-ego plays the same role in New York publishing culture as massive Sunset Strip billboards play in Southern California's rock 'n' roll culture: Neither really boosts sales, but they make the artist feel like more of a VIP.

"After sitting alone in a room for years, many authors simply need the social interaction," explains one lowly editor who asks to remain nameless for obvious reasons. "If some of these people didn't get a party, they would impale themselves on a pencil outside their editor's or agent's door. I'm not kidding."

Peter Osnos, publisher of Times Books, puts a kinder spin on this need for attention by authors.

"In some cases somebody has worked for a very long time on a book and a celebration is in order," he says. "A book party is kind of a finish line, a goal post."

But publishers like the recognition too. It's good for the image of the imprint with booksellers and other authors that the publishing house attracts big authors with lots of "fizz" or "buzz" or, best of all, bestsellers.

Diane Ekeblad, chief publicist for Warner Books, recalling the 1992 blowout in Soho for Madonna's book "Sex," says a memorable party can make a publisher hot for a long time.

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