Every book listing in Knopf's fall 1999 catalogue contains the usual mix of information -- title, author, price, ISBN, pub date and, most basic, a description of what the book is about. That is, every book but one. Only a single sentence describes what will most certainly be the house's biggest commercial book of the year: "Coming in November 1999: MICHAEL CRICHTON'S new novel TIMELINE."

There are but a handful of writers on the scene who can be launched with a million-copy-plus first printing (for Timeline, the figure is now at 1.5 million) with nary a clue as to what the book is about. In fact, a heated auction between the two big book clubs-Literary Guild and BOMC-was concluded without any of the principals having read any of the words in the book. And on October 18, still a month before the November 16 publication date, Timeline is already #134 at Amazon.com, a figure based solely on advance orders generated by consumers who have not yet read any critical evaluation of the new book.

The megaselling author became a fixture on the bestseller charts almost immediately after he began writing under the Crichton name. Back in May 1969, the Knopf hardcover of The Andromeda Strain was published with a 45,000-copy first printing, a significant number in the days before national chains, superstores and discounters. The book hit the PW list by early July and stayed there for 26 weeks; it sold 105,000 copies that year, and was the fifth bestselling novel of the year (the #1 book that year was Portnoy's Complaint, with reported sales of more than 400,000).

The Terminal Man, published in May 1972, was Crichton's second big novel but its tenure on our list and final year-end tallies were a bit more modest. A 16-week run on PW's hardcover charts amounted to about 75,000 copies sold in 1972, enough for the #12 spot on the year-end list (the #1 book, breaking all kinds of sales records, was Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with sales of more than 1.8 million).

In 1975, The Great Train Robbery boasted sales of 100,000+ and a 22-week run on PW's weekly charts, surpassing The Terminal Man; it was the 10th bestselling novel of that year (E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime was #1, with sales of more than 232,000). But Crichton's next two novels -- Eaters of the Dead and Congo -- failed to hit the weekly hardcover charts. Crichton went back onto the hardcover list with Sphere, published in June 1987. It achieved a 13-week run on PW's hardcover charts, with sales of more than 100,000 copies-a low total considering that Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel were all enjoying million-plus sales.

Enter the Dinosaurs
But all that was all pre-Jurassic Park -- the book and, even more so, the movie that catapulted him to the top of the charts and led to the really big numbers that all have come to expect when a Michael Crichton book is published. And "all" includes the international side of book publishing as well -- Crichton's books are published in about 30 countries. And almost all of them, Timelines will be a sure contender for a top spot on the bestseller charts and an impressive run.

The hardcover edition of Jurassic Park, published November 1990, enjoyed a 12-week bestseller run and was the 18th bestselling novel, based on sales of more than 230,000 copies for the last two months of that year (#1 that year was Jean Auel's The Plains of Passage, with sales of about 1.6 million). But it was the Steven Spielberg 1993 box office megahit (Jurassic Park is the second highest-grossing film, worldwide, of all time) that catapulted Crichton's book sales into another sphere. His next book, Rising Sun, published in February 1992, had a 19-week run on the PW charts and was the first of his books to hit the #1 spot. End-of-year sales totals went up to about 328,000; still, that figure made it only the 17th bestselling novel of the year (the #1 book was Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne, with reported sales of about 1.3 million).

Two years later, in 1994, Crichton's Disclosure had reported sales of almost 765,000 copies and a 19-week run on the charts, with five of those weeks in the #1 spot. It was the 10th bestselling hardcover fiction that year (John Grisham's The Chamber had the lead spot, with sales of more than three million). His next two bestsellers finally went over the one-million watermark in hardcover. Published October 1995, The Lost World (which was launched with a two-million-copy first printing) had sales of about 1.7 million and a 20-week run on PW's charts, half of them in the lead spot. It was the second bestselling novel of the year, topped only by John Grisham's The Rainmaker with sales of about 2.3 million. A year later, Airframe made our list for 16 weeks and sold almost 1.5 million copies; that made it the fourth bestselling novel of the year (Grisham, Clancy and King were ahead).

Jurassic Park also set records for Crichton in mass market bestseller performance. The book has gone to press more than 100 times and has about 12 million copies in print in the U.S. alone. That book, Rising Sun, Congo and Sphere dominated the mass paperback charts in the spring and summer of 1993. For almost four months, all four titles were on the charts simultaneously. That overlapped with a similar performance for three Grisham titles, and for about three months the two authors ruled the top of the charts.

And now, what all players are banking on is a solo performance -- that beginning November 16 bestseller charts everywhere will be headlined by a long-running Crichton Timeline.

Part 3: An Interactive Timeline
Back to Main Feature: The High Concept of Michael Crichton