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Buzz in books is caffeine related

Starbucks' decision to sell titles has brewed cautious anticipation in the publishing world.

August 14, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — There was a moment earlier this year when books were overflowing from boxes in Jennifer Rudolph Walsh's office at the William Morris Agency, like foam seeping out of a double latte. Word had gone out in January that Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee seller, was going to be getting into the bookselling business, featuring one specially selected book a month, and the company had asked Walsh -- the head of her agency's worldwide literary division -- to help choose the books.

The phones were ringing off the hook in Walsh's New York office, and she eventually had four staff people working full time on the project. Every day, new titles arrived. Every day, publishers called offering books they'd like to see for sale in the chain's more than 5,400 U.S. stores.

"We were inundated, it was unlike anything I've seen," said Walsh, who has represented authors such as Alice Munro, Anita Shreve and Anne Rivers Siddons (as well as the now-notorious Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student whose first novel was found to contain plagiarized passages). "And it wasn't a surprise, because the publishing industry is over the moon at the idea of selling books in Starbucks."

In May, as publishers continued to bombard Walsh's office with books, Hyperion made the surprise announcement at the annual Book Expo America convention in Washington, D.C., that it would be adding a new novel by Mitch Albom to its list. Almost immediately, Hyperion President Bob Miller said, Starbucks officials contacted the publisher to say they wanted the novel to be their first pick.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Starbucks: An article in Monday's Calendar section about a Starbucks program to promote and sell books said the coffee company planned to feature a new book every month. Starbucks will regularly select new books but will not impose a timeline or schedule.

"We didn't pitch them, they came to us because they were interested in working with Mitch's book," Miller said. "They had gone out looking for all kinds of publishers, looking at different kinds of books, and then this one really grabbed them."

It didn't hurt, of course, that Hyperion had previously published Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's book of business advice, "Pour Your Heart Into It." "We have some relationship there," Miller conceded. "And I know that Howard has been a big fan of Mitch's books. It all came together pretty quickly."

Neither Walsh nor Starbucks would say whether future picks have been chosen already, nor would they say who will have the final say on future picks. But Walsh said she and her staff are looking for books that are "deeply felt."

Beyond that, the inevitably subjective nature of recommending books makes it a complicated process. A book that moves one person to tears might bore another. Still, Walsh said, she is developing guidelines. "It's easy to say that a comic book is probably not going to be included in our program," she said. "We get rid of things like that pretty quickly. But everything else takes more time, because there's no easy prescription."

When word of the book program began surfacing this year, the company said it planned to include books by new and unheralded voices. But the selection of Albom's book -- the story of an emotionally beleaguered man who gets to spend one additional day with his mother, who died years before -- prompted a collective groan among some literati.

Not only are Albom's books considered by many to be treacly and unsophisticated, but the author, who has racked up huge sales with previous titles such as "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," would have been virtually assured of another bestseller this time around, with or without a push from Starbucks.

Starbucks "put out the word at first that they would be heralding new voices, but now they've picked something very safe and not very controversial, which is probably what we should have expected in the first place," said a prominent publisher who asked anonymity, noting that his company still wanted to do business with the coffee seller. "My guess is, if this program survives, they'll be picking books that sell quite well and let others gamble on new, lesser-known authors."

Starbucks' biggest gamble may be that its customers will be willing to buy a book with their daily caffeine fix. According to those involved with the project, however, it's a natural fit -- not least because the company is already "linked so intricately" with the creative process, Walsh suggested. "So many of the books I represent were written at least partially at a Starbucks somewhere. Thousands of books never published were also written in the store." Besides, Walsh said, finding books for sale next to cappuccino machines may be "a great moment of discovery, like discovering you could get health care at a gas station."

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