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The Year of the Celebrity Author

Publishing: Politics slid into the back room at this year's American Booksellers Assn. meeting. Star power's back, in the shape of Oprah Winfrey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

June 18, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

CHICAGO — As promotions go, this one was a slam dunk. Take retired Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sit his towering self in a chair to bring him down to eye level with mere mortals, and invite folks to have their photo taken with him. Watch the line form.

For two hours over the weekend, Abdul-Jabbar smiled alongside visitor after visitor to the American Booksellers Assn.'s annual convention and trade show to help promote his book, "Black Profiles in Courage," which William Morrow & Co. will publish in October.

In striking contrast to last year's convention, when appearances by authors-to-be Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich and Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a political theme to the annual rite of American book publishing, the gathering of 40,000 that ended Monday was short on political heat and long on the kind of celebrity dazzle that increasingly powers the industry.

Indeed, the tone had been set from the beginning by Hyperion, the aggressive publisher owned by the Walt Disney Co., which lined up a billboard on the Kennedy Expressway between O'Hare Airport and downtown Chicago that showed hometown girl Oprah Winfrey and her trainer, Bob Greene, and trumpeted their fall book, "Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body--and a Better Life."

On Saturday morning a Lycra-topped Winfrey presided over a wholesome breakfast buffet for about 1,000 people at Soldier Field, led them in stretching exercises and then power-walked the group along the waterfront to the McCormick Place Convention Center.

In addition, supermodel Cindy Crawford drew gawkers and autograph seekers from neighboring booths when she visited the display of Broadway Books to help the new publisher tout "Cindy Crawford's Basic Face," her spiral-bound makeup guide due in the fall.

A rumpled Ethan Hawke, the 25-year-old actor of "Reality Bites" fame, had a long line of booksellers, many of them twice his age, waiting for him to sign copies of "The Hottest State," his novel of young love, which Little, Brown has scheduled for October.

"It's my third year here, and sometimes I still have to blink that it's really my book that some of these people are talking about," said Australian photographer Anne Geddes, whose popular images of babies will take another fanciful turn in September, when Cedco Publishing Co. puts out her first coffee-table collection. In "Down in the Garden," Geddes presents her cherubs as colorful flora and fauna. She said there is no substitute for getting out of her studio and meeting the booksellers who bring her work to the marketplace.

For Cedco, based in San Rafael, Calif., and the many other smaller publishers exhibiting their wares, it was easier to stand out amid the milling booksellers because the giant Random House organization stayed away. The corporation chose to boycott this year's convention because of a complicated dispute it is having with the ABA over the wholesale pricing of books.

Other highlights of the convention:

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Book to Watch: Mia Farrow's autobiography from Doubleday early next year. The actress entranced a morning audience by reading an elegantly written passage in which she recalled her childhood in Beverly Hills and the special bond she forged at the time with a kindly neighbor, actor Charles Boyer. She went on to indicate that the memoir also would deal in a clear-eyed manner with her marriages to Frank Sinatra and Andre Previn, as well as with her 12-year relationship with Woody Allen, which splintered over his romantic involvement with one of her daughters and child-custody issues. Or as Farrow described the clash, "In 1992 a series of harrowing, unfathomable and excruciating events blew my whole world apart. My vision had been unclear, and very quickly I learned that this man had no respect for everything I hold sacred--not for my family, not for my soul, not for my God or my goals." (Watch out, Woody.)

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A Book Beloved: The ABBY Award, given annually to the author whose work the booksellers most enjoyed selling to their customers, went to David Guterson for "Snow Falling on Cedars," his literary novel about a murder and racism in an isolated community of the Pacific Northwest. And no wonder. The Vintage paperback edition by the previously unknown author was the fourth-biggest seller in the country during the first five months of this year, according to USA Today's national tabulations.

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