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Booked on Leo

He may be only 23, but biographies of the 'Titanic' star are flying off the shelves--snapped up by girls hungry for every morsel of information--true or not.

March 23, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It might be said of the authors and publishers of all those books about 23-year-old "Titanic" heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio that their ship has come in.

Several of these unauthorized biographies are anchored on bestseller lists here and abroad, and copies are sailing off shelves in what one London bookseller terms "Leonardo lunacy."

"It's definitely a phenomenon," says Sandra Wake, editorial director of Plexus, a small London house that in November published one of the first, and classier, tomes, "The Leonardo DiCaprio Album."

It was a case of timing is everything. "We knew there was a market for a book on Leonardo" and had planned to do one when "Romeo & Juliet" came out, Wake says, but "somehow we didn't quite get it together."

What luck. With the release of "Titanic" in December, "Everything went crazy," Wake says. It seems that teen and preteen girls--the target audience for these illustrated paperbacks--are just loony about Leo. "We can't keep up with demand," Wake says. "We've got something like 50,000 back-ordered. It's crazy. It's wild."

The book, by Edinburgh writer Brian J. Robb, has sold almost 280,000 copies worldwide, including 10,000 English-language editions in Japan, and Plexus is publishing Japanese, German, Brazilian, Polish, French and Scandinavian editions. It is in its third week on the New York Times national paperback bestseller list.

"Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix [subjects of earlier Plexus biographies], none of them have sold like this," Wake says. " 'Titanic' came along and it just went wild. Girls in England and France were going to see it 10 or 11 times. You know, we often pick up on your heroes before you do."

Craig Virden, publisher and president of New York-based Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, never dreamed he'd have a bestseller in "Leonardo DiCaprio: Modern-Day Romeo," published in February 1997 and on the New York Times national paperback bestseller list for six weeks. Nothing like this has happened to him since 1990 when his book on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sold 2.5 million copies.

Virden says of DiCaprio, "We try to keep on top of media figures that adolescents and teenagers seem to be interested in. Not coincidentally, I have a 14-year-old daughter and I noticed she had three posters and 30 cutouts of this kid tacked up in her room. And we knew 'Titanic' was coming out."

Capitalizing on this, the publisher followed "Modern-Day Romeo" last month with "Leonardo: A Scrapbook in Words and Pictures," No. 4 this week on the Los Angeles Times paperback bestseller list and on the New York Times national list.

"We had the idea on the fifth of January and we had books in the warehouse on the 26th," Virden says. The publisher has sold rights in 12 countries, including South Korea, China, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Both books are by Long Island-based Grace Catalano, who's profiled Pitt, Phoenix and other young stars. "Brad Pitt is very successful," she says, "but nothing has been anything like Leonardo."

She wrote the first book in about three weeks, without attempting to interview DiCaprio. "There wasn't really time. But I did talk to him a long time ago when he was on 'Growing Pains' and I was editing a teen magazine."

How does one cobble together a book in a few weeks? Mark Bego, New York-based author of "Leonardo DiCaprio: Romantic Hero," due out next month from Andrews and McMeel, says, "I see every movie [in DiCaprio's case, that's 11], find every article, download every bit of data, and just sort of immerse myself in it, decide what the story is, what it is that sparks this interest. And then I just kind of dive in.

"The subjects will almost never cooperate," he adds. "You're better off working around them."

"It's pretty amazing, isn't it?" Bego says of the explosive market for Leo literature. He has written 33 celeb books, and, until now, he says, his main claim to fame was "Michael!," his 1984 Michael Jackson biography that sold 3 million copies, helped along by the fact that "it came out the week that Michael caught his hair on fire filming the Pepsi commercial."

When Bego saw "Titanic," he knew DiCaprio was red-hot, and he "jumped aboard." The actor, he says, has it. "I said in my book that Leo will forever be remembered for 'Titanic' like Clark Gable is remembered for 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Bego figures his buyers are girls 12-18, for whom DiCaprio has good-boy--as opposed to James Dean bad-boy--appeal. "He looks like someone you could bring home to your parents."

Just out from Archway / Pocket Books, another young readers imprint, is "Leonardo DiCaprio: A Biography," by New York-based Nancy Krulik, author of bestseller "Taylor Hanson: Totally Taylor!," a bio of the teen band's lead singer. The first printing was 185,000, and it has already gone back to press.

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