Saturday, December 07, 2002

National Arts Journalism Program, Columbia University


In 1975, the year's best-selling book, E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," sold 232,000 copies, chain bookstores were still a new concept, and the word "marketing" was scarcely heard in publishing houses. By 2000, John Grisham's "The Brethren" exceeded the sales total of "Ragtime" by twelvefold, nearly all best-selling books were published by just five publishing conglomerates, and the business was transfixed by two hot buzzwords that had no role in publishing even five years earlier-Oprah and Amazon. What has happened?

In the last 25 years, corporate consolidation, digital technology and an intensified cult of celebrity have transformed the publishing business, for better and for worse. And while industry observers and casual readers can sense the air of change, there has been scant data and analysis to help us identify the trends. Until now. In 2002, National Arts Journalism Program research fellow Gayle Feldman-a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and New York correspondent of The Bookseller (London)-undertook a research project and report that systematically compares "best books" of the last 25 years with best-selling books of that period. In the overlaps, divergences and trendlines, the story of the publishing industry as it enters the 21st century finally can be told.

Some of the findings:
* No award-winning book made the top bestseller lists in 2000--though some made weekly lists; by comparison, in 1975 one Pulitzer Prize winner and one National Book Award Winner made the annual list.

* The number of bestsellers sold had increased dramatically in 25 years. For example, in 1975, the big bestseller Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow sold 232,000 copies while in 2000, The Brethren by John Grisham sold nearly 2.9 million copies, a twelvefold increase.

Some other findings: winning a prize is helpful to lesser-known or new writers but has little impact on the sales of established authors, and bestselling books remain celebrity autobiography, religious works, business, beauty, television tie-ins, self-help
and personal fulfillment books--just as they were 25 years ago.

Monday, December 02, 2002
Move Over, Scrooge: Publishers Hope for New Holiday Classic

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 30, 2002; Page C01

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

If you say that's the opening line of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," you're thinking like a reader. If you say that's the opening salvo in a perennial publishing war that has escalated beyond all belief this year, now you're thinking like a publisher.

Book purveyors are banging into each other like liquored-up elves, hoping to discover the next Dickens. They are hyping a handful of Christmas offerings from mega-selling authors -- including "Skipping Christmas" by John Grisham, "The Christmas Train" by David Baldacci, "Visions of Sugar Plums: A Stephanie Plum Holiday Novel" by Janet Evanovich and "Esther's Gift: A Mitford Christmas Story" by Jan Karon -- in hopes that they'll become longtime and lucrative Christmas traditions.

Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly says of the trend, "This is brand new." Certain children's books, such as "The Night Before Christmas," have always fared well. And other books, particularly classroom favorites like "The Catcher in the Rye," ping onto the bestseller charts around the same time each year.

But the notion of a contemporary popular writer cranking out a Christmas story is, Milliot says, "definitely unusual." Can titles like "Have Yourself a Bodice-Ripping Christmas" by Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy's "Nuclear Christmas" be far behind?

After all, it's the season for chestnuts. The London theaters have been offering holiday pantomime stories for decades. You almost can't call yourselves an American ballet troupe these days unless you trot out "The Nutcracker" when the weather cools.

The recording industry, like the publishing world, has gone cuckoo over Christmas. Just about every crooner -- from Bing Crosby to the Chipmunks to Toni Braxton -- has pressed a Christmas CD. This year's highlights include Alan Jackson's "Let It Be Christmas" and "White Trash Christmas" by Bob Rivers, featuring uplifting tunes like "The Little Hooters Girl," sung to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy," and "I'll Be Stoned for Christmas." Perry Como, Snoopy and others have had successful runs on yuletide TV.

It doesn't take a miser to realize that a good Christmas book just might sell well year in and year out.

First published in 1843, "A Christmas Carol" is available today in more than 50 editions from Barnes & Noble's online store. It's a cautionary tale: Dickens tried -- unsuccessfully -- to repeat his triumph with other Christmas stories, such as "The Chimes."

Random House tumbled on the secret of perennial sales in the 1960s and 1970s when Truman Capote's slender and sentimental "A Christmas Memory" continued to fly off the shelves year after year. "The Christmas Box" by Richard Paul Evans has returned annually like wild mistletoe since it was published in the mid-1990s. (But that's a case of an obscure writer happening upon bestsellerdom, not a bestselling author setting out to conquer the world.)

The benefits to the publisher are obvious, Milliot says. "There is no new advance. You're paying royalties, but you don't mind doing that. Promotions are already in place."

He says, "It's really found money."

And: "You don't have to deal with critics."

For the proven and prolific writer who forth spews books with clockwork precision, it's a chance to slip another title onto the shelves.

Of this year's crop, Milliot adds, "People are a little surprised that Grisham's 'Skipping Christmas' has done as well as it has."

Grisham's story of Luther and Nora Krank, who decided to ignore Christmas altogether, just may be the new standard. The company shipped 2.1 million copies last year and the book rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. So far there are 1.3 million copies in print this time around and the book will be No. 2 on this week's New York Times list.

Stephen Rubin, president and publisher at Doubleday, Grisham's home, isn't leaving everything up to the goodwill of the season. "When John came in and gave us the book, he said his vision was always to keep it in hardcover and bring it back year after year."

To rekindle interest on this second go-round, Rubin says, the company's sales director suggested that the price be lowered and advised Doubleday to "change the packaging, using the same illustration, but making it a much more gifty look."

In "The Christmas Train," a journalist travels by rail from Washington to Los Angeles and runs into various characters and a blizzard. Publishers Weekly notes that Baldacci "gets a bit preachy about the advantages of train travel and the lessons of Christmas."

But, the review adds, "This is a more warmhearted and enjoyable novel than Grisham's comparable holiday offering last year, 'Skipping Christmas,' and Baldacci's fans will snap it up as the Yuletide treat it is."

In "Visions," Evanovich's protagonist Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter, makes it through a hectic holiday. Kirkus Reviews says: "Plotting gets short shrift in this thinnest of Plum puddings."

Regardless of the critiques, the books -- like the CDs and TV specials -- are making cash registers jingle.

Stuart Applebaum of Random House says, "It is a great creative and financial engine driving the holiday choo-choo train. For us publishers the notion of a holiday book perennial is relatively new, but many of us are making up for lost time with the opportunities now in the marketplace.

"It's a little too easy for some to be cynical about it, but the stories are done creatively and earnestly by the authors."

He adds, "The question is whether or not there will be continuity."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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