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Putnam's Hail and Farewell
Judy Quinn -- 9/29/97
House invests $1 mil in new novelist Graham; LaVyrle Spencer's final novel arrives in December
Offering a novel by former screenwriter and current Wichita, Kans. high school French teacher Janice Graham in an auction last month, agent Bob Tabian no doubt expected offers on just that book, or perhaps the typical option for the next. Ballantine's Leona Nevler had set a $100,000 floor for the heartland-set romance, and Warner's Jamie Raab put in her early bid: $125,000.

Then came a surprise: Berkley senior v-p and publisher Leslie Gelbman and Putnam senior editor Julie Grau incredibly upped the ante, offering $750,000 for world and hard/soft rights to three books, which they later raised to $1 million to counteract Nevler's 10% topping privilege as floor holder. Since then, Putnam has made more than $1 million in foreign rights sales, with four of the seven foreign publishers buying the rights to all three books as well, and, in an unprecedented purchase, the Literary Guild also bought all of Graham's three books as main selections. The first novel, tentatively titled Fire Bird, centers around a Yale Law grad who returns to his native Kansas to practice and becomes torn between two distinctive women. It will be a summer 1998 release.

While Putnam obviously believes in this new author and convincingly sold the publishing world on her, the commitment to some extent will fill a women's-fiction slot on the house's list as bestselling novelist LaVyrle Spencer retires from writing. Her 23rd and, as it turns out, last novel, Then Came Heaven, will be published in December, and in new author Graham, Gelbman said, "I think we have someone who will strongly connect to that [Spencer's] audience."

But why is Spencer, who is only 54, leaving, when her books still consistently sell in the 400,000 hardcover, 1.5-2-million-copy mass market range? "I want to be free!," said the author in a phone call to PW. Spencer, who started out as a paperback romance writer and was nurtured to hardcover breakout with Putnam/ Berkley, said that she always had a financial goal in mind, after which she planned to retire. She said that she wants to enjoy her two young grandchildren and travel with her husband.

Then Came Heaven, a story about a grieving widower and his relationship with a local nun, will bring fans full circle since it, like her first novel, The Fulfillment, is set in Spencer's childhood hometown of Browerville, Minn. And as she has done in her recent mass market editions, Spencer's paperback Small Town Girl, scheduled for a January release, will include a letter to fans -- although this time, it's a final one. The popular author's legacy will also continue with the healthy sales of her backlist, and Gelbman expects to do some repackaging of those titles when appropriate. Spencer's agent, Steven Axelrod, told PW that the CBS-TV version of Spencer's Family Blessings is scheduled to air next month.

As Spencer gleefully tells PW she's celebrating proofing her final galley. Now new author Graham faces Spencer's old pressure, to start developing those two next books. "She better start writing," joked Tabian to PW, although he said that proves to be no problem, since 50-year-old Graham is an accomplished screenwriter, who has lived and worked in France, Greece, Israel and California. Her best known work is the 1984 Karen Allen-in-Paris vehicle, Until September.
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