Friday, December 27, 2002

Publishers have the Hollywood tie-in covered
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Literary purists cringe, but publishers know the easiest way to sell a book is with a new cover from Hollywood:

The Hours, Michael Cunningham's novel inspired by Virginia Woolf's 1923 masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, became a best seller only after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Now it has another life: 250,000 copies with a film image of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, who plays Woolf. The movie opens in select cities Friday.

Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale's memoir of a con man, sold 86,000 copies after it was reissued in 2000. Now 250,000 copies carry a cover that copies the movie poster. Top billing goes to Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. The movie opens today.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris' account of his schizophrenic life as a TV game-show host and CIA hit man, was out of print until this month, when 75,000 copies of the movie tie-in edition were released with actor Sam Rockwell on the cover. The movie opens Dec. 31 in Los Angeles and New York and Jan. 17 nationwide.

"Movie art on books isn't as aesthetically pleasing to some purists," says Carl Lennertz of BookSense, the marketing organization for independent bookstores. "But it's essential to increased attention, display and accessibility to a much larger potential readership."

Hollywood-inspired covers, he says, help "moviegoers, of whom there are more of than readers — a lot more, alas — make the connection to the book."

Consider A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Nash, a brilliant but mentally troubled mathematician. The original paperback pictures Nash on the cover. The movie tie-in edition shows Russell Crowe, who portrayed Nash in last year's movie.

The publisher continues to print both editions, but the cover with the actor is far more popular than the one with the actual subject of the book. With Crowe on the cover, 850,000 copies are in print; 160,000 copies show Nash.

This year, nearly all of the leading Oscar contenders were inspired by books, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's movie based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 collection of stories.

But Carol Fitzgerald of Bookreporter .com, a Web site for book discussions, says she fears that because of the economy, "people will make a choice to 'see the book' this year instead of reading it. Movies cost less, require a smaller time investment and deliver instant gratification."

If she had to choose one book she believes people will read as well as see the movie, it's The Two Towers. "Readers are invested in the trilogy," she says.

"People who read these books when they were younger tell us that they are circling back to them now and appreciating them more. They are the ones leaving the theaters and heading to the bookstores."


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10 outstanding reads, 10 stand-out stinkers

Yes, at 3 a.m., book reviewers do toss and turn, worrying that a deserving debut novel, a deeply researched history or that truly moving memoir has been buried beneath an avalanche of glossy publicity kits or ignored because of deadline pressures. But we do our best. Alphabetized by author, here is a sampling of some of the outstanding books of 2002 as well as books we found disappointing — or worse.

The best

1. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (Knopf, $35). Caro writes history with the touch of a novelist who values a sense of place and mood. Though the book is anchored by relentless research, Caro knows that history is more than facts. Master of the Senate, the third of Caro's four volumes on Lyndon Johnson, is about LBJ's Senate years, from 1949 to 1960. No writer offers a more vivid sense of modern history.

2. The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter (Knopf, $26.95). Although wrapped in the conventions of a mystery, this long, profoundly satisfying novel wrestles with life's most perplexing issues: religious faith, sibling bonds, human weakness, truth, marriage, ambition, money, race. Carter's answer on how to live the good life is not found in automobile showrooms or Restoration Hardware, but in the Bible. This resonating novel is one to read and reread.

3. Atonement by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, $26). McEwan, who won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, infuses his slyly graceful Atonement with energy. Its historic sweep from 1935 to 1999 uncovers betrayal, guilt and redemption. It is a provocative engagement of the senses, an adroit management of grand themes, grand schemes and grand resolutions.

4. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24). In this debut novel, Foer fictionalizes his voyage at age 20 to trace his family history in Ukraine. He inserts vibrant characters, invents clever plot points and imagines events from centuries ago. The result is a hilarious yet heartbreaking tale of family and discovery.

5. Roscoe by William Kennedy (Viking, $24.95). Kennedy has written seven novels set in Albany, N.Y. (Ironweed is the best known.) But he shows no signs of overmining the territory. His latest is an exuberant portrait of political and sexual betrayal, set mostly between World Wars I and II, notable years for crime and punishment in New York's state capital.

6. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (St. Martin's, $24.95). On the surface, this is a portrait of a young girl caring for a darling little boy neglected by his wealthy, self-absorbed Manhattan parents. Yet the debut novel is both hilarious and far more profound than one realizes at first. For one thing, the mother, Mrs. X, is not the one-dimensional she-devil she appears to be. (Selfish and tormented, she bears her secret sorrows.) The novel reminds us that more tears are shed over answered prayers.

7. The Founding Fish by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). McPhee is an amateur (except when it comes to writing) who delights in hanging out with the best pros. Which is what he has been doing for 26 books, from a profile of a college basketball player named Bill Bradley to his Pulitzer-winning opus on geology. His latest weaves wonders about what might seem a small topic: shad, the most storied of American fish.

8. I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother by Allison Pearson (Knopf, $23). Often compared to fellow British female protagonist Bridget Jones, Kate Reddy exists as a far more complex, intelligent and tormented soul. This tale of a working mother in London's financial district offers up observations that will resonate with readers long after they have finished the highly praised novel. Though the ending wraps the story up too neatly, the novel has far more depth than simply another dispatch from the eternal mommy wars waged between working and stay-at-home mothers.

9. Hell to Pay by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown, $24.95). Masters of the crime novel genre like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard read Pelecanos. And for a lot of good reasons. Hell to Pay continues the emotional journeys and crime-solving escapades of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the ex-cops Pelecanos introduced in last year's knockout, Right as Rain. Pelecanos' fiction is excruciatingly realistic, his protagonists are flawed but sensitive, and his bad guys are very, very bad.

10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, $21.95). A lovely novel that begins with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. An audacious contradiction? Perhaps, but Sebold's debut novel rises, literally and figuratively, above its plot. A surprise best seller, it's propelled by the voice of its questioning narrator, the murdered girl. In the end, it's more about redemption than death.

The disappointments

1. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy (Putnam, $28.95). His 10th novel featuring Jack Ryan is less of Clancy's usual techno-thriller and more of a conventional spy story. Set in 1983, it's about a Soviet plot to kill the pope. Its biggest problem is that it doesn't need to be 618 pages; it takes Clancy a good 200 pages to get the plot going. For a writer whose strength is neither dialogue nor characterization, that's inexcusable. It's also dangerous to fall asleep reading a 600-page book.

2. Prey by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins, $26.95). In his new novel, Crichton tries to scare the bejesus out of us with a harrowing tale of nanoparticles gone berserk. If you don't get what all the nano-fuss is about, Crichton makes a valiant but futile effort to evoke the dangers of mixing nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer technology and humanity's reckless egotism. Prey is a big fat tech manual wrapped around a threadbare story. The subject matter is way too complicated for commercial fiction.

3. Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's, $19.95). Evanovich has built a loyal following of readers who have devoured all eight of her mystery novels about a zany New Jersey bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. Apparently, those readers will follow Evanovich anywhere. A disjointed plot involves one character named Sandy Claws and another, Diesel, who may or may not be from another world. In this world, it looks like little more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Christmas novels.

4. The Cell by John Miller and Michael Stone, with Chris Mitchell (Hyperion, $24.95). This book promised to reveal why the FBI and CIA failed to stop the Sept. 11 terrorists. The authors are veteran crime reporters better suited to writing about Mafia thugs. They have lots of FBI sources but are in over their heads in dealing with international terrorism. They use second- and third-hand information but write about events as if they were witnesses.

5. More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Simon & Schuster, $25). The author of Prozac Nation, that shapely Harvardian is at it again. Now our struggling writer has developed an addiction to Ritalin, which she grinds up and snorts while trying to finish a book. And again, we are treated to her endless self-absorption mixed with self-pity.

6. Halloween by Jerry Seinfeld, illustrated by James Bennett (Little, Brown, $15.95). This reader could fill an entire newspaper with savage reviews of trashy kids' books that have been written, so to speak, by celebrities and/or adult authors. Halloween is one of the worst. It is not a bit funny. And it features a particularly shameful moment when the young Jerry look-alike sneers at an old lady who dares to ask him, "What are you supposed to be?" He hits her in the head with her own orange peanut-shaped marshmallow, snarling, "We're going for name candy only this year."

7. The Book of Mean People by Toni and Slade Morrison, illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre (Hyperion, $16.99). Being a Nobel Prize laureate is no guarantee you can write a children's book. This strange offering involves various definitions of what makes people mean. Mothers yelling at their children or trying to feed them green peas are demonized. (By that standard, 99.9% of mommies are mean.) By the end of the book, it's hard to figure out who isn't mean, except for the rabbit hero and his dog.

8. God Bless America, song and music by Irving Berlin, accompanying CD performed by Barbra Streisand, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (HarperCollins, $15.99). As a book illustrating Berlin's beautiful and patriotic song, this is an acceptable title. And Munsinger's bear illustrations are pleasant. But the book would benefit from more information about the brilliant and fascinating Berlin, who published the song in 1938. And the accompanying CD of God Bless America, performed by Streisand, illuminates why it is the rare celebrity who should venture into the kids' market. Save it for Vegas, Babs.

9. What About the Big Stuff? Finding Strength and Moving Forward When the Stakes are High by Richard Carlson (Hyperion, $19.95). Filled with platitudes about learning patience, the importance of meditating and taking time to be kind, this new offering is ineffectual. Readers would be better served reading Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, or any books by the Dalai Lama, when "Big Stuff" happens. Carlson's anecdotes about his back problems and his thoughts on forgiveness, illness, death and 9/11 are pretty thin.

10. The One Minute Millionaire: The Enlightened Way to Wealth by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen (Harmony, $19.95). This self-help tale mixes obvious fiscal advice — use only one credit card; be persistent in pursuing your goals — with a far-fetched novel about a widow who must earn $1 million in 90 days to regain custody of her children from her evil in-laws. Save your money. Avoid this book.

Contributing: By Deirdre Donahue, Bob Minzesheimer, Carol Memmott, other USA TODAY staff writers and freelancers

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

New Booker Prize award
The Booker Prize's advisory panel is setting up a new prize. Unlike the Booker Prize for Fiction, which identifies a British or Commonwealth novel as book of the year, the new prize, which acknowledges a lifetime contribution to literature, will be open to authors in the United States and any other English-speaking country.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

December 19, 2002
Room at the Table for Fresh Faces

How's this for an upbeat thought? Despite a year of whining about economic gloominess in book publishing, 2002 might be remembered, if one notes such things, as a particularly good year for first fiction. One would have thought the contrary, that in these times of uncertainties, publishers would be betting only on the sure thing, the brand name writers, and that that would rule out taking many risks with debuts.

Not necessarily true. Several days ago Random House Inc. astonished book professionals with the announcement that its seven book divisions had this year published 103 first novels or first short-story collections. A company record. Random House Inc.? Wasn't that the behemoth many in the business felt would be the most risk averse after its conglomeration in 1998?

There were other bright signs for wannabe fiction writers, and it didn't have much to do with the size of the publishing house. St. Martin's Press, for instance, which churns out 700 titles a year, published 63 debut fiction titles, and Little, Brown & Company, with a 50-title program, did even better proportionately in risk taking. It published eight first novels or debut short-story collections.

In a way this adventurousness may seem surprising in such a mingy economy. But an essential part of publishing lore is that its attraction as a profession for the young and idealistic is precisely this: the joy of discovering and publishing new writers. And this excitement seldom fades over the years of a career.

Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, put it this way: "There's nothing publishers love more than first novels: opening up that box with a manuscript in it and discovering a new novelist."

Peter Olson, chairman and chief executive of Random House Inc., said: "Contrary to the cynics who believe publishing is focused mainly on best sellers and big advances, for our editors author development is a privilege and a truly passionate undertaking. This year they jump-started 103 author careers." (Random House Inc. publishes more than 1,500 fiction titles a year.)

Career building can be a necessarily slow process. Sally Richardson, publisher of St. Martin's Press, said, "We will take on first novels that other publishing houses wouldn't, because we are willing to do smaller numbers than many other houses — have first printings of 3,000 or 4,000, maybe some at 12,000, in hardcover."

"It's no-frills launches," she said. "Part of it is working the smaller bookstores, with a whole spectrum of genres. Mysteries, women's fiction, historical fiction." St. Martin's had 73 best sellers this year, Ms. Richardson said, including "The Nanny Diaries," a first novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Clearly Ms. Richardson's not a bad starter for a writer.

So in a book year with little excitements, when even the sales of some brand name authors are slipping a bit, first fiction provided some energy and juice. One of the few enduring buzz books of 2002 was Alice Sebold's first novel, the best-selling "Lovely Bones" (Little, Brown), which is still buzzing along. Mr. Pietsch, its publisher, said, "It's been a banner year for first novels, and `Lovely Bones' will fuel that for a few years to come."

One thinks back to 1997 when Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" (Atlantic Monthly Press) and Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (Alfred A. Knopf), both first novels, were publishing's propellants. People read them and rushed for their computers to try their hand.

This year, too, there were awards as well as popularity for some first fiction. Julia Glass's novel, "Three Junes" (Pantheon), won the National Book Award for fiction, and "You Are Not a Stranger" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a debut story collection by Adam Haslett, and Brad Watson's "Heaven of Mercury" (W. W. Norton), a first novel, were finalists.

What does this first fiction array prove, other than that perhaps publishers have more nerve than they often lead us to believe? It proves yet again that the best engine to drive a book's sales is not advertising or authors' tours or even reviews, but word of mouth. People will read a book recommended by someone they respect even if they have never heard of the author.

Selling any novel is not easy, but rookie novels are an easier sell than most people would suppose. Publishers and editors are always searching for that new writerly voice. The hunt may be as important as the back list, for in the end the new voice, they hope, becomes a steady voice and eventually that's what makes up the all-valuable back list — those books that bring steady sales to a publisher year after year.

But writing is a torturous game. Get a nicely published first novel in the stores and the writer is on the way, right? Far from true in most cases. The really hard sell is the author's second novel. The voice is no longer new and fresh. Moreover, the prospective publisher has the computer printout revealing the net sales of what was that promising first novel. The numbers don't have to be best selling, but they had better be promising or the author's agent is going to have a tough sale to a publisher still searching for new fresh voices. Unless, of course, that second manuscript is so obviously smashing. Hey, editors and publishers, make 2003 the year of the second novel!

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