EW's Special Coverage

The Pop of King

Book Article

All the Write Moves

How Hillary, Harry, and Hepburn saved books -- The publishing industry climbs out of its post-9/11 funk by using a little star power

BLOCKBUSTER BOOKS The publishing industry now pushes its goods Hollywood-style
Image credit: Blockbuster Books Illustration by Kirsten Ulve
BLOCKBUSTER BOOKS The publishing industry now pushes its goods Hollywood-style

Expensive marketing campaigns, replete with flashy billboards and coveted sneak previews. Powwows in Beverly Hills ballrooms. Blockbuster openings. And, of course, Monday mornings counting the weekend millions.

A studio executive's fantasy? Sure. But this summer, with box office grosses down, it's an apt description of Hollywood's less glamorous cousin: book publishing.

After a dismal struggle post-9/11, the book business has started to generate the kind of heat normally found only in a Jerry Bruckheimer production. This season's big political drama, Hillary Rodham Clinton's ''Living History,'' sold a record 600,000 copies within a week of its June 9 release. In their first weekend of sales, J.K. Rowling's long-awaited sequel, ''Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,'' earned almost twice what ''The Hulk'' did. And A. Scott Berg's ''Kate Remembered,'' which had been shrouded in Kubrickian secrecy, hit shelves -- and best-seller lists -- 11 days after Katharine Hepburn's death on June 29.

This year's annual BookExpo America was held in Tinseltown, and it hardly seems a coincidence. In its effort to climb out of the doldrums, the publishing industry appears to have adopted some of Hollywood's golden rules.

DELIVER A STAR Hillary, Hepburn, and Harry needed no introduction -- crucial for ''Kate,'' since secrecy was contractually required. ''Only 10 people knew about it,'' says Carole Baron, president of G.P. Putnam's Sons, Dutton. But within one day of the book's announcement, there were orders for more than 350,000 copies; it's now poised to hit No. 1. ''Living History'' benefited from the same kind of built-in interest; indeed, reviews that declared how dull the book was didn't dissuade readers. ''Clinton is a woman who some people love immensely and some people don't, but both groups want to read about her,'' says Maureen Egen, president of AOL Time Warner Books (like EW, owned by AOL Time Warner). Why is Egen so generous about a book that isn't hers? Because winners beget winners, which brings us to...

THE ORDER OF THE TENT POLE Just as a smaller movie can benefit from spillover from the sold-out No. 1 showing, publishing as a whole has gotten a boost from the big guns. Says Baron: ''When 'Harry Potter' went on sale that Friday, we decided to put Clive Cussler's book ['White Death: A Novel From the Numa Files,' cowritten by Paul Kemprecos] on sale then rather than Monday to get some of the traffic. It seemed to work very well.'' Sure did -- the book debuted at No. 6.

GET 'EM TALKING It may look like good luck, but Dan Brown's best-selling ''Da Vinci Code'' is benefiting from months of grassroots marketing. Doubleday sent out 10,000 advance copies to the media this winter, and Brown hit the road addressing booksellers and book clubs. Says Suzanne Herz, associate publisher of Doubleday, ''People became obsessed with it.'' To date, the book has sold more than a million copies.

Feeding the roots can also boost older books: Witness Alice Sebold's ''The Lovely Bones,'' which has been a best-seller for a year now. ''Sometimes people don't have time to read things when they come out,'' says Egen. ''Summer is a catch-up time.''

SCREW SUBTLETY The crash you hear this fall may be Gregg Hurwitz's ''Kill Clause'' landing on the best-seller list. Or it may be a pileup on Sunset Boulevard, where HarperCollins is taking out an enormous billboard on behalf of the handsome writer. HarperCollins marketing executive Lisa Gallagher estimates that the billboard will be seen by 54,000 people a day: ''We're basically fighting to get as much attention as we can.'' (Tom Clancy got his own billboard last year; he'll rely on old-fashioned PR to position this month's ''Teeth of the Tiger.'')

Okay, so it can get a little tacky, but there's nothing like money and glamour to make restraint seem overrated -- especially in a business where, says David Rosenthal, Simon & Schuster's executive VP and publisher, ''it's tough regardless of these successes.'' (Indeed, the company just laid off 75 people.) Still, he continues, ''I think in this industry you have to be cautiously optimistic, or you'd throw yourself out a window.'' (Additional reporting by Karen Valby)

Originally posted Aug 01, 2003 Published in issue #721 Aug 01, 2003 Order article reprints