Book Article

Bookselling Blues

Low sales from big-name authors like Dan Brown and Audrey Niffenegger have the publishing industry hopeful for a strong holiday season

Publishing executives are praying for a green Christmas. After a discouraging year left the struggling book industry with no choice but to consolidate imprints and conduct mass layoffs, publishers rallied behind a slew of A-list authors releasing books this fall. The all-star cast? Dan Brown. Ted Kennedy. Jon Krakauer. Mitch Albom. Jeannette Walls. The marquee names were so dazzling that publishers were calling this fall one of the biggest the industry has ever seen.

But so far, this big-banner autumn hasn't done nearly enough to alleviate publishing's pains. The first signs were promising: Brown's long-awaited Da Vinci Code follow-up, The Lost Symbol, sold 1.2 million copies its first week on stands, joining Kennedy's True Compass and Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory on best-seller charts. But while 1.2 million in one week is a more-than-respectable number for Brown, it's mere peanuts when compared with, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which sold 8.3 million copies in just 24 hours back in 2007. And Brown's sales are now sinking like a big action movie in its second weekend: In less than a month, his numbers dipped from 401,000 copies sold in one week to a mere 214,000 the next, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Some books are outright flops, not to put too fine a point on it. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger's follow-up to The Time Traveler's Wife, has sold only 38,823 copies; the new Mitch Albom book, Have a Little Faith, is at 148,974 copies. But despite numbers like these, the industry remains hopeful. ''We're optimistic, with a dollop of real caution,'' says Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, the arm that oversees Symbol's publisher, Doubleday. ''We are in a recessionary economy where many people are either out of work [or] watching their discretionary purchases very carefully. It's difficult at this juncture to know precisely how buoyant they will be in their book purchases.'' As he points out, other fall releases from sure-thing authors like John Grisham, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton have yet to hit stores. Plus, the holiday gift-buying season is just around the corner. ''It is a giddy, giddy feast,'' says Michael Pietsch, the executive vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, which is poised to release big books like Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Julie Powell's Cleaving. ''There are several books by authors who have devoted, loyal, enormous followings. So I think the [holiday] shopping season is going to start early this year and continue really strong.''

That's certainly the mantra within publishing these days. Kathryn Popoff, vice president of trade books for Borders, says watercooler talk about the packed fall season could push consumers into bookstores. And who knows? An unknown title could become the industry's next hot ticket. ''[Publishers] recognize that a portion of their success from blockbusters like Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer is fairy dust — that it's just luck,'' says Sara Nelson, former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. Here's hoping the industry gets lucky.

Additional reporting by Keith Staskiewicz


Are Blockbusters Going Bust?
Some of fall's biggest books are racking up sales — but not all of them

148,974 (Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom)
Selling at a truly glacial pace.

38,823 (Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger)
Her publisher? Out a $5 million advance.

1,914,960 (The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown)
The Da Vinci sequel got off to a fast start, but then sales plunged.

301,438 (True Compass, Ted Kennedy)
The late senator's memoir continues to perform steadily.

Originally posted Oct 27, 2009 Published in issue #1073 Oct 30, 2009 Order article reprints
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