Tuesday, January 21, 2003

January 20, 2003
Some Best-Seller Old Reliables Have String of Unreliable Sales

Some of America's most popular authors are finding that being big isn't what it used to be.

Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton, usually among the most bankable of best-selling writers, sold far fewer copies of their books than expected this past year. The disappointing sales numbers, possibly the result of too many books from the same authors or the book-buying public's changing tastes, contributed to a dismal holiday season for book retailers, particularly chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Not all star authors suffered drop-offs in their sales numbers: Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich continued their predictable and profitable ways. But the decline of such stalwarts as Mr. Clancy and Ms. Clark could presage a trend that would play havoc with publishers' bottom lines, and even the advances handed out to big-name authors.

The commercial necessity of publishing a lucrative roster of brand-name novelists, who can be counted on to write a book a year, was underscored last week by the ouster of Ann Godoff as president of the Random House Trade Group and the merger of the imprint with Ballantine Books.

The trade group had more adult hardcover best sellers in 2002, including books by Tom Brokaw, Anna Quindlen and Maya Angelou, than any other Random House division. But its recent lists have lacked the prolific best-selling novelists that are vital to the book divisions of large media conglomerates like Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, AOL Time Warner and Viacom, which owns Simon & Schuster. Random House no longer has a James Michener or Robert Ludlum to pour cash into its coffers consistently and help smooth out the inevitable peaks and valleys of publishing new authors.

Ballantine, primarily a paperback imprint, publishes crime novelists like Jonathan Kellerman and Richard North Patterson in hardcover.

"Brand-name authors still dominate the best-seller lists. They are still the bread and butter of the industry," said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, chief executive of the AOL Time Warner Book Group, the publisher of James Patterson. But a change is afoot, he said. "There is no longer a quintessential best seller. The market is diluted to some extent by the incredible number of brand-name authors out at the same time."

And some retailers and publishing industry executives blame publishers for giving readers too much of the same thing by individual authors. Mr. King released two horror books in 2002, and Ms. Clark, the suspense novelist, published three.

While sales of Mr. King's first book of 2002, "Everything's Eventual," a story collection, nearly matched those of his 2001 novel, "Dreamcatcher," his second book, the novel "From a Buick 8," fell short. "From a Buick 8" has sold 367,000 copies, about a 20 percent decline, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which gathers sales data from outlets that represent about 70 percent of total sales.

Ms. Clark's June 2002 novel, "Mount Vernon Love Story," has sold 108,000 copies, far fewer than the 427,000 copies that sold after her "Daddy's Little Girl" went on the shelves in April, according to Nielsen Bookscan. (Her other book in 2002, a memoir, sold about 60,000 copies.)

Executives at the companies that publish Mr. Clancy, Mr. King, Ms. Grafton and Ms. Clark acknowledge their weaker sales in 2002, but contend that the sales drops are the consequence of a weak retail economy that has hit booksellers especially hard. During the nine-week holiday season ending Jan. 4, sales at Barnes & Noble stores open at least a year were down 3 percent from the previous year. And Borders's fourth-quarter comparable-store sales at its superstores were down 2.5 percent, while sales at Waldenbooks were off 6.3 percent.

Susan Petersen Kennedy, the president of the Penguin Group (USA), confirmed that Mr. Clancy's "Red Rabbit," a spy thriller published under its Putnam imprint, had not sold as well as expected. But, she said, it still reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. "Tom's audience is still out there," she said. "If blue jeans are down for a month, does that mean Americans aren't going to keep buying blue jeans?"

"It's been a year of different buying patterns," Ms. Kennedy said. "They're not the patterns we predicted." She pointed to the Penguin Group's success with new books by Jan Karon, Maeve Binchy, Nora Roberts and Patricia Cornwell.

Some retailers speculate that younger readers are turning elsewhere for commercial fiction. "We're all old enough to know these writers who've been writing a long time," said Daniel Goldin, a trade buyer at Harry Schwartz Booksellers in Milwaukee. "When I first started in publishing, people like Arthur Hailey were still selling. And then they stopped."

One retailing executive insisted that the downturn was not because of the economy. "Too many authors are cranking out at least a book a year," the executive said. "Readers can't keep up. It's the bottom-line pressure to be on schedule, to deliver at least a book a year. You have 10 percent of people saying, I can wait for the paperback or wait until I hear more about it. And then they may not buy."

But the definition of overproduction is relative. Hardcover sales for James Patterson are up, though he published three novels, including collaborations, in 2002. Warner expects to sell more than a million hardcover copies of his latest thriller, "Four Blind Mice," released in November, an 8 to 10 percent increase over his previous book's sales, according to Mr. Kirshbaum. Warner will sell more than seven million copies of Mr. Patterson's books in hardcover and paperback this year, up from about two million copies five years ago.

"There's no question we're seeing a softness at retail, which is impacting sales on the brand-name authors," said Jack Romanos, president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Ms. Clark and, under its Scribner imprint, Mr. King. "But we won't really know how well these books have done until they're published in paperback a year from now. We won't make up the hardcover dollars, but ultimately readers will come to them."

While sales have slipped for Mr. Clancy and Mr. King, the authors are not in danger of going the way of Irving Wallace and Arthur Hailey just yet. Sales of their earlier books in paperback have remained remarkably consistent, even as their latest hardcover sales dip. Mr. King's "Carrie," for example, his first novel, originally published in 1974, sold about 23,000 copies in both 2001 and 2002, according to Nielsen Bookscan.

Paperback sales for previous titles by Ms. Clark and Ms. Grafton have stayed similarly consistent. "As each of these authors has a new novel, they may dilute" their own hardcover sales, Mr. Kirshbaum said. "But when you take all their books together, they may actually be growing." Ms. Grafton, he said, may be selling less of her latest mystery, "Q is for Quarry," in hardcover, "but she's still selling A through P."

Nonetheless, the steep sales decline could have a long-term impact on future author advances. "I am more nervous about paying large sums," Ms. Kennedy said, because "a sense of solid trending" is more difficult to achieve today than several years ago.

Mr. Kirshbaum said: "Publishers will be more careful when courting major authors. There will be some tempering of advances going forward. There are limits to what can be sold, and if agents realize there has to be some reality in terms of advances, that would be valuable. It's a nice thought."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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