Fifty-five years ago this summer, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind arrived in bookstores with a lot of heft it weighed in at a whopping three pounds but no fanfare. Since televised author interviews and other forms of book PR were unheard of, GWTW had to make its own way. That it did, selling more than a million copies in the first year. To date it has sold 28 million copies, making it the most successful novel of all time, with the possible exception of Valley of the Dolls.
By contrast, Warner Books, which will publish Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind next month, is leaving nothing to chance. According to its publicity director, Ellen Herrick, the company has launched a ''10-day whammo approach'' to publicize the book: a 30- city tour for Ripley (she'll visit five and do the remaining 25 via satellite); 30-second TV spots in major markets; and ''print ads in 9 zillion places,'' as Herrick puts it. On D day, September 25, 500,000 copies of Scarlett will appear in bookstores across the U.S., with close to 2 million more translated into 18 languages going on sale in 40 other countries.
Some publishing insiders believe that this publicity avalanche is designed to offset the bothersome rumors that have plagued Scarlett's reputation ever since the project was announced. The initial postponement of the book it was supposed to appear in the fall of 1990 was accompanied by talk that the manuscript was a mess. ''We've all heard that the book is dreadful,'' an editor at a rival house remarked. Sour grapes? Could be. But since Scarlett has been kept under lock and key, only a handful of Warner executives can vouch for its merits, and they aren't talking. No one else has gotten a glimpse not even reviewers, who are being denied the usual advance copies.
If Warner's marketing strategy pays off, Scarlett's reincarnation could call forth a procession of literary sequels. The Orlando Sentinel reports that ''a hot young literary agent'' was overheard trying to get a publisher to cash in on the trend: ''Hey, it's great. Let's do a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.'' Just think of the other possibilities.