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TERENCE SMITH: James Patterson is on the publishing equivalent of a victory tour.
From the set of the Today Show and an audience of millions, to the throngs of adoring readers at a midtown Manhattan book signing. To the venerable confines of the 92nd Street “Y” for an evening’s book chat.
JAMES PATTERSON: I like the idea of writing a fun history.
TERENCE SMITH: The best-selling author is putting in a long day on the road, promoting his latest chart-topper, The Jester, co-authored with Andrew Gross.
Patterson is in that most exclusive of book clubs: The blockbuster author who sells millions. He’s sold 45 million in North America alone on his past 21 books, and he has been translated into 36 languages. That popular validation, and adulation, never get old.
JAMES PATTERSON: I love to do it. Somebody said you’re lucky if you find something you like to do and then it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it. That’s what I do.
TERENCE SMITH: Telling stories is big business– upwards of $26 billion worth of books were sold in this country last year– but 2003 has brought troubling signs to the industry.
GALE FELDMAN: Sales are stagnant. In fact, they have been going down the past few months.
TERENCE SMITH: Gayle Feldman is a research fellow at the National Arts Journalism program at Columbia University. She recently released a study about the publishing world.
GAYLE FELDMAN: The book business is in some difficulty at the moment. You can sell huge quantities of something, but there are big distortions in the business and problems.
TERENCE SMITH: According to the Association of American Publishers, a leading industry group, sales of adult hardcover books were off a startling 18 percent in the first quarter of this year as compared to last.
Gayle Feldman sees a number of explanations.
GAYLE FELDMAN: There is a squeeze on profits.
Book publishing, the big publishers have consolidated so that you have five or six big, big companies that control the biggest books. There are many, many books that do not get marketing or publicity money behind them and they die.
TERENCE SMITH: Even more striking, some of the most bankable authors — Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton — have sold far fewer copies of their recent books than had been expected.
CHARLES McGRATH, Editor, New York Times Book Review: It’s as if certain brand-name writers — the Grishams, the Clancys, the Kings of this world — have hit the wall, which is very surprising.
TERENCE SMITH: Charles “Chip” McGrath is the editor of The New York Times Sunday book review.
CHARLES McGRATH: It’s not just that they’ve maxed out, it’s that their sales are sort of declining, that their newer books aren’t doing as well as the ones before.
TERENCE SMITH: The reasons are not entirely clear, but industry experts believe it is possibly the result of a market flooded with books or, simply, changing tastes among the book-buying public.
PATTERSON: Would you like a signed manuscript?
TERENCE SMITH: Attracting buyers has never been a problem for James Patterson.
While most authors leave promotion to their publishers, Patterson uses all the skills he learned in his earlier career as head of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson to ensure that his works find readers. He participated in a recent TV Guide contest, for example, in which readers were asked to finish a Patterson story. Prizes included having a future character in a Patterson novel named after the winner.
COMMERCIAL: This season’s number one best seller…
TERENCE SMITH: He helped pioneer book advertising on television, paying part of the costs of some of the first ads for his novel, Along Came a Spider himself.
COMMERCIAL: James Patterson reads from Suzanne’s Diary From Nicholas.
SPENCER MICHELS: To promote his romance novel, he struck a deal with Crystal Light Drink Mix, which offered beach towels to winners of a trivia quiz about the book. And when sales lagged in the Bay area, Patterson set a series in San Francisco. Area sales skyrocketed.
Promotion is one thing for an established author, quite another for a newcomer like Matthew Pearl, who at age 27 has written his first novel, The Dante Club.
On this day, Pearl is attending three book signings, two interviews, and a reading — a new experience for the Harvard and Yale-educated Dante scholar.
MATTHEW PEARL: I think it actually helps for a writer that is starting out to know as little as possible about the business side of it. You want to be savvy, but you don’t want to get obsessed. You have to learn to roll with the punches and really communicate in different venues and books signings is one of them.
So they are sending me on a book tour to I guess eight, nine cities altogether.
TERENCE SMITH: Jonathan Karp, a vice president and editorial director at Random House, receives 300-500 submissions a year. Pearl’s was one of the handful he chose to edit for publication.
JONATHAN KARP, Random House: A really ambitious and talented writer is going to make you forget reality, and he’s going to make you see things that you wouldn’t normally see in life. Matthew Pearl believed in his story.
That’s the mark of a great novelist — when you can make a reader believe something that’s very unusual.
TERENCE SMITH: He says his gut told him Pearl’s unlikely fictive tale of the hunt for a Dante-inspired killer in Boston in 1865 would sell and sell big, so much so that Random House ordered a first printing of 100,000 copies — nearly unheard of for a first-time, unproven author.
The Dante Club did not disappoint: It immediately went to number one on The Boston Globe bestseller list and cracked the top 10 on the venerable New York Times list.
Chip McGrath says industry talk counts in the book world.
CHARLES McGRATH: He’s one of those amazing stories. There is a lot of buzz about this, and this is the kind of book that publishers like to get behind. It could be the beginning of a great career.
TERENCE SMITH: In an economic slump when overall sales are down, making a best-seller list can be crucial to a book’s success.
CHARLES McGRATH: I still think it’s true that The Times book review can make or break a book. It’s part of what can become like a sort of self-propelling mechanism and that is to say that a lot of stores will discount New York Times bestsellers or they will feature them in their stores.
TERENCE SMITH: A perfect cycle: Lists drive sales and sales drive the lists.
Today, of course, there are many best-seller lists, from Publishers’ Weekly to USA Today to Amazon.com.
And now, a company called Bookscan — owned by A.C. Nielsen, the television ratings service — is revolutionizing the compilation of best-seller data by tracking book purchases electronically at the point-of- sale. Jonathan Karp welcomes the new approach.
JONATHAN KARP: I don’t know whether the so-called new economy is a real thing, but if it does help us understand where are readers are and what they’re buying, and we can manage that information quicker and more efficiently, than I think that’s a good thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the number of titles published in the United States keeps growing; some 140,000 are expected this year alone.
The unanswered question in this sea of books is how many will rise to the surface and catch the public’s fancy?