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It's all Hillary and Harry

REGARDING MEDIA TIM RUTTEN

June 18, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

An account of contemporary American book publishing probably should be titled "A Tale of Two Industries," and it might begin with a description of this extraordinary week: It was the best of times in the worst of times.

The week began with the astonishing news that "Living History," former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir, already has earned back Simon & Schuster's $8-million advance. Nearly 70% of the first 1 million volumes printed have been sold, and the publisher has gone back to press for 500,000 more hard-cover copies. Publishers in more than 20 foreign countries have paid Simon & Schuster at least $3 million for local rights and that, coupled with domestic sales, has put the book squarely in the black. Veteran publishing executives and editors say "Living History" enjoyed the highest opening day sales in the history of nonfiction and call its overall launch the most successful ever.

And there's more -- far more -- to come.

At the stroke of midnight Friday, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" -- the fifth volume in J.K. Rowling's celebrated series -- goes on sale in what seems certain to be the biggest launch ever for a work of fiction. The imaginary Harry may be shrouded in sorcery, but his author and her very happy publisher, Scholastic Books, are surrounded by very real superlatives. This book's first printing of 8.5 million copies is the largest in the history of fiction publishing; its $29.99 price is a record for children's literature, and its 896-page length may be one as well. The series' fourth volume, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," sold its entire 3.8 million-copy first printing within two days and, since then, more than 16 million copies have been purchased. Online booksellers Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com say advance orders for the new book may hit 2 million.

(For the sake of comparison, Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," last year's literary sensation, has about 2.4 million copies in print.)

Yet despite these phenomenal sales figures, booksellers continue to complain of torpid sales for most books and major publishing houses continue to struggle economically.

Why?

The answer has to do with the increasingly bifurcated world of publishing and how that has affected the way books are sold. On one hand are the blockbusters: "Living History" and the Harry Potter series. They are among the 100 or so BIG books selected for distribution each year in what publishing executives call "the unconventional outlets" -- mainly discount stores like Costco and Wal-Mart, though "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" also will be sold in Toys 'R' Us. These chains -- with their no-frills displays and deeply discounted prices -- play a substantive role in creating the blockbuster books and increasingly dominate the consciousness of major publishers, which nowadays are simply units of larger entertainment and communications conglomerates.

Every year, American publishers bring out about 50,000 books that never will find a place in a big box discount outlet and must struggle to find an audience. For these books, the independent publishers are proving themselves far more skilled tacticians than the conglomerates' major houses. And, thus, two book markets.

Veteran publisher Peter Osnos has worked both sides of that street, first as an editor and executive at Random House and, more recently, as founder and chief executive of PublicAffairs Press, a leading independent publisher.

"What's fascinating to me about Hillary Clinton and Harry Potter is that most of their copies are going to be sold in places that sell a huge number of books but very few titles. I think probably half of Hillary Clinton's books will be sold at Wal-Mart and Costco, places that only a generation ago nobody would have thought of as a place to buy books.

"Now they're a dominant force in the industry, but they carry only about 100 titles a year and they are absolutely fierce about the need to reach certain minimal sales levels. Nothing else matters. By that criteria, virtually none of the tens of thousands of other books published each year could even be sold there."

Books that appeal to the discount chains, according to Osnos, are the ones behind which major publishers are most likely to throw major promotional money. "It's the winner-take-all mentality," he said, "and everyone else is meant to stagger along behind."

Like other successful independent publishers, like Grove/Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, Osnos sees the majors' preoccupation with blockbusters as an opportunity. "Since most of our books will not go to Wal-Mart, I need to take advantage of the alternative markets that are available to us." As an example, Osnos cites PublicAffairs' current success with Craig R. Whitney's elegantly written and well-reviewed history of an unconventional cultural artifact: "All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters."

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