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All's Fair in Books and War : At the American Booksellers Assn. Convention, the Newt Is Heckled, Protesters Rush the Building, and Everyone Gets a Preview of the Fall Lineup


CHICAGO — Stephen J. Cannell, the prolific creator and writer of such TV series as "The Rockford Files" and "The Commish," came to the book industry's annual splash over the weekend to plug his first novel, a political thriller called "The Plan."

But even a veteran of Hollywood's wars could feel overwhelmed by the thousands of people and acres of publisher displays that mark the convention of the American Booksellers Assn.

"You can feel like a raisin in a Waldorf salad," Cannell said.

Adding to the tumult of this year's convention, which ended Monday after drawing an estimated 42,000 people to the McCormick Place Complex, was a series of political sideshows that Cannell might have used in his story.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, author of "To Renew America," starred at Monday's "Power Lunch," but first had to sit out a couple of hecklers who silenced him for several minutes until security personnel led them away.

"It's wonderful to be in a free country where people can dissent without fear," he said before others protesting the Republicans' "contract with America" loudly resumed the disruption.

"This is nonsense," Gingrich remarked. "No small group has the right to block free speech." The audience applauded and Gingrich continued.

After the Georgia congressman left, about 75 members of the Chicago-based Coalition Against the Contract rushed the building. Police evicted a few and sealed the doors.

At the end of the month, HarperCollins will distribute 500,000 copies of Gingrich's book, which he described as a reflective postscript to the "contract with America." He made no mention of a House Ethics committee warning that his book contract has yet to comply with the panel's rules. HarperCollins also plans to send him on a 25-city tour.

Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the presidential choice of many surveyed Americans, was here to promote his autobiography, "My American Journey," which Random House acquired for $6.5 million and will publish in September. He declined to say whether he has political ambitions, but revealed personal concerns about inner-city woes and affirmative-action shortcomings that made him sound like a candidate at times. And plans for a 20-city book tour in the fall will make him hustle like one.

Neither man drew the kind of booming applause that on Sunday welcomed First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a book about children and families on Simon & Schuster's fall list. Indeed, some in the ABA, an organization considered to be left of the divide, grumbled about the decision to invite Gingrich. Powell, who gave a stiff and formulaic address on Sunday, still was expected to score at retail.

"I think his book's going to fly out of the stores," said Patricia Vunk, owner of the Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington, N.Y. A buyer at one of the leading chains said he intends to increase his Powell order. The announced first printing is 750,000.

On the fiction side of the fall lineup, people were talking about Nicholas Evans' "The Horse Whisperer," a first novel that has earned the British screenwriter more than $6 million in publishing and film rights. Advance editions newly circulated by Dell Publishing, which plans an initial volley of 600,000 copies, reveal it to be a high-tone story about the redemptive power of love. Those who have read the sample were stopping and praising the soft-spoken Evans, who said: "You can't buy therapy like this."

In a convention traditionally crowded with celebrity authors, including Betty White, David Byrne, Roseanne Cash, Janet Leigh, Peter Ustinov, Bill Moyers, Larry King and hometown legend Studs Terkel, there was also the following:

* Party With the Biggest Celebs: Little, Brown and Co.'s gathering at the Marc for Linda McCartney and her husband, former Beatle Paul McCartney, to promote her vegetarian cookbook, "Linda's Kitchen." The guests lined up to meet the couple, who greeted each one with impressive cheer. When publisher Charles Hayward's microphone faltered, the sneakered Paul shouted, "Go, Charlie!"

* Biggest Celeb Missing at Breakfast: Ellen DeGeneres, star of the ABC sitcom "Ellen" and author of Bantam's upcoming "My Point (And I Do Have One . . .)." She had to cancel an appearance at Monday's mammoth book-and-author breakfast because she was stuck on the set of her first film, "Mr. Wrong." But she and Bantam were promising to buy breakfast for the staffs of 10 bookstores chosen from the weekend's attendees.

* Best Buzz for Nonfiction by a Non-Candidate: Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action," a David-and-Goliath account of a young lawyer's fight against two polluting industries in Massachusetts. Reads like a thriller, said those who snapped up sample editions from Random House's booth. A seven-figure sale of film rights also cranked up interest.

* Better-Late-Than-Never Award: One year after Pat ("The Prince of Tides") Conroy talked up his next novel, "Beach Music" has finally arrived from Doubleday.

* Funniest Title for a Fall Book: Erma Bombeck's "All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room."

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