This is the first in a series of lunchtime interviews with movers and shakers in the book world.
NEW YORK -- As she toyed with a bowl of chowder in a Rockefeller Center restaurant, Simon & Schuster Chief Executive Carolyn Reidy sounded as much like a Hollywood producer as a book world maven: How do you spot the next big blockbuster title, she mused -- and how can you be sure?
Reidy, who is the highest-ranking woman in New York publishing, laughed at the notion that anyone could answer such a question with certainty (echoing the famous William Goldman quote, "In Hollywood, nobody knows anything"). Even if a bestselling author's new title looked like a sure-fire bet and booksellers couldn't wait to stock it.
"In New York's publishing houses, all of our lists have authors we thought would achieve bestselling consistency but who never got there," she said. "You can always tell in the beginning how marketable an author is. The big question is whether they'll truly reach that level and whether they do it consistently, over and over."
Case in point: Chelsea Handler. Earlier that morning, Simon Spotlight Entertainment announced that it had signed up a second book by the bawdy, freewheeling star of E!'s hit show "Chelsea Lately." Her last book, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea," topped the bestseller lists and has 250,000 copies in print. The publisher, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, is banking on Handler's celebrity to generate equally strong -- or even stronger -- sales for the untitled book due out in spring 2010.
But that's nearly two years from now, an eternity in the TV and book worlds. And Reidy, who took over the helm at Simon & Schuster on Jan. 1, concedes there is no way to predict how long any brand-name author will remain strong in the marketplace.
"We don't know; nobody knows the answer to that, and we can't gauge things too far into the future," she said. "Because sometimes these writers last an extremely long time, and there can also be events, completely unforeseen, which can torpedo a brand name."
It's a high-stakes game. And as publishers point out, it doesn't take a lot of skill to sell books by John Grisham. The trick is to sign up the next John Grisham at a bargain rate before anyone else. In recent years, Simon & Schuster launched bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne's New Age book "The Secret"; the health and diet books by Drs. Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen; and evangelist Joel Osteen's "Become a Better You," which had a 3-million-copy first printing.
Indeed, the company has had a healthy economic run since 2002, according to industry statistics. But sometimes you're only as good as your latest quarter, and publishers are bracing for a downturn. Amid discouraging economic news, Random House and HarperCollins recently replaced longtime chief executives. Reidy, who ran her company's adult publishing division since 2001, knows the ups and downs; she's worked in the book world for more than 25 years.
"Actually our mood is still very positive; it's positive but guarded," she said, noting that Simon & Schuster has several big titles on the horizon. The conventional wisdom in the book world is that blockbusters can balance out the ledgers if other books do not fare as well. Yet if publishers wind up paying too much for a big title, their profits can be diminished.
As the roulette wheel spins, Reidy is banking on titles from Oz and Roizen, a fall book from Bob Woodward, plus novels from newer bestselling writers like Jodi Picoult and Vince Flynn. But she won't allow herself to get carried away.
When Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, published "The Secret," based on a bestselling DVD, Reidy believed it would be a bestseller. "But we never imagined that it would sell 6 million copies in the U.S. alone," she said. "It was the same thing with 'Angela's Ashes.' Did we think it would do well? Yes. Did we think it would sell more than 2.5 million copies in hardcover? No."