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A secret society that rides coattails

An entrepreneur scored big with a guide to 'Da Vinci Code' mysteries. Can he do it again for a book not yet published?

November 04, 2005|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — You'd have to be insane to do a spinoff of a book that doesn't even have a publication date yet -- wouldn't you?

Not if it's the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Burstein says.

Burstein is a publishing entrepreneur with a day job: He's the founder of a New York-based venture capital firm. Lately he's been on the road promoting "Secrets of the Widow's Son," which promises to prep readers for "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown's next venture into the world of secret societies, conspiracy theories, myths and alternative history.

All that's known about the still-unscheduled Brown book is that when it's finally published -- perhaps in late 2006 or 2007 -- it will involve the Freemasons, will be set at least partly in Washington and will be called "The Solomon Key." That was enough for Burstein.

And why not?

He'd already made a killing with last year's "Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code" -- of which there are well over a million copies in print.

Burstein says he got hooked on "Da Vinci" in June 2003, three months after Brown's religio-historical thriller was published. (According to Brown's publisher, Doubleday, 36 million hardback copies are now in print worldwide.) He shelled out hundreds of dollars for books related to Brown's narrative, in which the Gnostic Gospels and Mary Magdalene figure heavily, and started thinking about a guidebook that could help readers separate fact from fiction.

He and a friend started a small company, Squibnocket Partners, to pull "Secrets of the Code" together. They made contact with Barnes & Noble, which signaled significant interest. They signed up more than 40 contributors (with Burstein serving as editor) and by May 2004 the anthology was a New York Times bestseller. Later came a guide to an earlier Brown book, "Angels and Demons."

Ah, but those books exist! How can you do a guide to a book that isn't written?

One of Burstein's team, reporter David Shugarts, supplied the answer by checking out a rumor that there was a code embedded in the dust jacket flaps of "The Da Vinci Code." Sure enough, some letters on the flaps were in a slightly bolder face and spelled out "Is there no hope for the widow's son?" Researching that phrase led Shugarts first to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eventually -- the details are too complex to get into here -- to a predicted Washington-Freemason backdrop for Brown's next book.

Brown later confirmed as much in a rare public appearance.

So if you're truly Brown-obsessed -- or if you're just dying to read about the conjunction of Freemasonry, the Founding Fathers and the nation's capital -- "Secrets of the Widow's Son," which Burstein commissioned Shugarts to write, is there for you.

But for the publisher, there's more to it than that. Odds are the next Dan Brown work will be one of the biggest sellers ever -- and who do you think will be ideally positioned to rush a true guide into print? "We intend to do a whole 'Secrets of the Solomon Key,' " says Burstein, laughing, "once we can read 'The Solomon Key.' "

He's far from the only one piggybacking on Dan Brown. By now there are a couple of dozen books with such titles as "Da Vinci Decoded" and "The Da Vinci Hoax" that serve as guides to or refutations of Brown's mega-hit. And there's even another preview title -- "The Guide to Dan Brown's 'The Solomon Key' " by Greg Taylor -- though it lags behind "Widow's Son" in Amazon sales rank.

Burstein isn't losing sleep about competition. "People are so interested," he says.

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