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Booked-Up Publishers Could Be in a Bind

Dozens of titles from big-name authors will all be on shelves soon. Marketers are trying new approaches to stand out from the crowd.

October 01, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — This fall, the largest number of new titles by brand-name authors in recent memory is hitting bookstores, and the publishing world is asking itself an unusual question: Can there be too many good books?

As Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Lunch, a book industry website, put it, "There's a legitimate question whether this is too much at once, whether the market can handle it. There are just so many of them."

The situation has publishers trying novel marketing and publicity strategies as they struggle to get attention for their authors.

There are new books from bestselling "blockbuster" types such as John Grisham, making his first foray into nonfiction; John Le Carre; Stephen King; Michael Crichton; Robert Ludlum; James Patterson; Dean Koontz; Michael Connelly; Tess Gerritsen; David Baldacci; and Danielle Steel, all of whom rarely, if ever, publish a sales dud.

In literary fiction, there are new novels from Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Richard Ford, Mary Gordon, and Charles Frazier, his first since "Cold Mountain" 10 years ago. There is Alice Munro's latest short-story collection, and the last installment of Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" children's books.

There is a new nonfiction title from Michael Lewis, along with the second volume of Gore Vidal's memoirs, and eagerly awaited books from icons who publish very infrequently, such as Thomas Pynchon, "Silence of the Lambs" author Thomas Harris, and Joseph Wambaugh, who has his first LAPD novel since 1983. There is hot-potato political nonfiction from Bob Woodward, Frank Rich, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, John Ashcroft and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), plus a biography of Colin L. Powell.

All will be filling bookstores between now and Thanksgiving, in what is traditionally publishing's heaviest season. "It's raised the bar for everyone in the business, at the most crucial time of the year," said Sandi Mendelson, a veteran book publicist in New York.

The exposure publishers like best -- a TV appearance for an author -- is less of an option, according to David Rosenthal, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster. "There are too many new books to fill these slots on news, cable and magazine shows," he said. "So you have to think outside the box."

At Simon & Schuster, for example, publicists and marketing directors have been reaching out to bloggers to boost Robert Harris' political thriller "Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome."

"This isn't something I was doing a year ago, but I think it's a huge opportunity for us now," said marketing director Leah Wasielewski. "I got a fantastic response from some bloggers, and it makes sense because this approach allows us to target consumers directly and gauge their interest. You go right to the source."

Among the sites that Wasielewski contacted were Bread and Circuses (http://adrianmurdoch. typepad.com/bread_and_ circuses), which deals with the later Roman empire; Prettier than Napoleon (http://bamber.blogspot.com), a blog on literary and legal issues; and Mental Multivitamin (http://mentalmultivitamin.blogspot.com) a literary site. All three generated reviews of "Imperium," she said.

But while many authors routinely use the Internet to communicate with their fan base through personal blogs and websites, some publishing executives, such as Daniel Menaker, editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group, are just now beginning to understand the medium. "For me the Web is like a teenager's room," Menaker said. "It can be very messy, and you don't quite know how to bring order to it. But you can't ignore it. You have to deal with it."

Of course, the big fall books will still have to be promoted the old-fashioned way. The Random House marketing campaign for Frazier's "Thirteen Moons," for example, includes heavy newspaper, magazine and broadcast advertising, plus a retro-feeling book tour during which the author -- by choice -- will be driving to about 15 cities in the South and Midwest.

Other authors whose names are not as recognizable will probably be scrambling to get whatever scraps of publicity they can. And while the bounty of new titles could generate more traffic in bookstores, publishers realize they may well pay a price for putting so much out there.

"It's a double-edged sword," Menaker said. "I think lots of people will come into the stores to buy one book, and then maybe buy another. But they won't buy 10."

Some observers wonder if publishers -- eager to boost profits in what has been a financially lackluster year -- have miscalculated and flooded the stores with too much. Nowadays, big books open like Hollywood movies, with on-sale dates planned months in advance. Publishers choose those dates carefully, hoping to avoid competition with similar fiction and nonfiction books from rival houses.

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