The Perfect Storm (1997), Ship of Gold (1998) and the National Book Award winner In the Heart of the Sea (2000) simply primed the pump for a deluge of historical sea adventures, it turns out. "Seafaring books have been getting so much play in the past few years that we buy just about anything historical that comes our way," said buyer Diane Sullivan at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, Calif. "I keep thinking surely the genre has run its course, but there are always titles that do very well," said Stan Hynds, buyer at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt..
Depending on how loosely the category is defined, there are at least six such titles just out or due in the next two months, with more to follow. In a market that's still hungry for sea adventures, say booksellers across the country, all of them will find readers. But the greatest enthusiasm by far has been directed at two titles: one from Norton about a violent mutiny, and the other from Walker, about the sinking of the Lusitania, a precursor to the Titanic.
Norton's Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock by Thomas Heffernan (Apr.), one of two competing accounts about the 1822 mutiny on the Nantucket whaleship Globe, has what buyer Sullivan calls "lots of positioning." That means a splashy two-page catalogue presentation, raves from sales reps and jacket quotes from the current flagbearers for the watery adventure subgenre, Nathaniel Philbrick and Sebastian Junger. Author Heffernan, a former president of the Melville Society, wrote Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, the story that inspired Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.
For Mutiny, Heffernan mined a rich trove of historical documents, including a never-before-published first-person account of the mutiny, the bloodiest in American whaling history. According to a starred review in PW, the author keeps the "action relentless and oftentimes terrifying" in "a dynamic, tightly edited record that never shows the toil of labor." Heffernan's editor at Norton is editor-in-chief Starling Lawrence, who brought Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey tales to the U.S. and worked with Junger on A Perfect Storm and Fire.
Following a strong start at a luncheon for key press in New York in March, Norton will stay on top of the book with a major print ad campaign in coming months. The author will go on a 10-city tour, give talks at sailing museums and yacht clubs, and do readings and signings at bookstores. The first printing is in the six figures, with about three-quarters of that already shipped.
"I have a gut feeling about this one," said Northshire's Hynds. "It has that Philbrick look to it." Nancy Brown at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., had a similar response: "Norton does a great job. Because of Perfect Storm, I have a good feeling about it."
Little, Brown's head-to-head entry, Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny of the Whaleship Globe by Gregory Gibson (Apr.), has generated some interest but considerably less excitement. This underdog account relates the Globe's fatal trip, weaving in the secondary story of how a journal manuscript from that era found its way to the author, shedding light not just on the 19th-century whaling industry but also on the world of rare manuscripts and book dealers. "The rep made it sound really good," said Anne Edkins, a buyer at Vroman's in Pasadena, Calif. Still, Edkins termed her order "moderate"—in fact, only half that for the Heffernan, which elicited a more visceral response.
Gibson, a rare book dealer in Gloucester, Mass., and author of Gone Boy: A Walkabout (Kodansha, 1999), will primarily tour whaling museums and historical institutes on the East Coast. Little, Brown won't release first printing figures but claims that it accelerated the release date (originally set for May) because the book was finished and ready to go, not because the Heffernan title was about to ship. Rick Simonson at Elliott Bay in Seattle has placed equal orders for the two titles. "There's getting out of the gate, and then what happens down the road. It may take the paperback to see which will prevail," he said.
A pair of books on the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which killed 124 Americans and hastened this country's entrance into WWI, may appeal to history buffs who bought books about the Titanic and Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Though some believe there may be room for both Walker's Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston, and Norton's Lusitania: Saga and Myth by David Ramsay (both due May 7, the anniversary of the ship's sinking), booksellers are betting Preston's book will come out on top.
Preston writes about the torpedoed ship ("the World Trade Center of its day," noted Simonson) from the perspective of the terrified participants, based on contemporary memoirs and overlooked German archives, giving the narrative an immediacy that Ramsay's lacks. Preston also has a good track record; her account of The Boxer Rebellion (Walker, 2000) sold 15,000 copies in hardcover and about 25,000 paperbacks. Meanwhile, British historian Ramsay is a newcomer whose more scholarly account examines and rebuts the many myths surrounding the disaster, without a narrative through-line.
Though Norton is respected for its handling of books in this genre, Walker receives praise for its special touch with narrative nonfiction, which inclines booksellers to give Preston's book the benefit of the doubt. "They don't do many, but they do them really well," explained buyer Joe Marsh at Chaucer's, who ordered 12 copies of the Preston and only two of the Ramsay. According to Borders publicity director Ann Binkley, the chain singled out Preston's title as "particularly fascinating," based on the strength of her prose and the story's historical importance. Walker plans a 40,000-copy first printing, its biggest since Dana Sobel's Longitude, with 80% shipping initially. Meanwhile, Norton printed "just into five figures and will ship in the modest five figures," said publicity director Louise Brockett.
In a rare case of synergy between rivals, Walker and Norton are working together to get national coverage for both books, orchestrating dual interviews and otherwise jointly spreading the word. (Walker marketing director Maya Baran and Norton publicity director Louise Brockett couldn't resist the chance to work together again, five years after Baran left Brockett's team at Norton). Is this a good strategy? "That depends," said Borders's Binkley. Hindsight will tell.
Will readers be sated soon? Not if the story is exciting. Coming in May from the Free Press, The Sea Shall Embrace Them: The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic (May) by David Shaw also has bright prospects, though booksellers were not unanimously enthusiastic. While Brown at R.J. Julia hailed its " great title, great story," Hynds at Northshire reported, "We didn't bet the house on this one." At Vero Beach Book Center, Vero Beach, Fla., an area known as the Treasure Coast because so many ships have foundered on its reefs, manager Sheila Grange ordered twice as many copies of the Shaw as of the other seafaring titles.
The book (which received a star from PW and is a BOMC alternate) tells the story of the collision between an American and British steamship that led to the death of hundreds. The disaster made headlines every day for a month, and brought to an end the domination of the American maritime fleet. ARCs went out with a letter from the publisher and an endorsement from Walter Lord, whose book about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, is the granddaddy of all disaster-at-sea books. The Free Press reports a 35,000 first printing.
As if to drive home the point that gore at sea is good, at least for armchair reading, booksellers report brisk sales for Crown's recently released Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny. Author Mike Dash (Tulipomania) has a juicy subject in Jeronimus Corneliszoon, a psychopathic Dutchman and religious fanatic who murdered 216 of the 332 men, women and children on board the Batavia, which wrecked in deserted reefs off the coast of Australia en route to Java in the 1600s.
"It's about cannibalism, and almost seems too grisly, but it's doing well," noted Hynds, who added that the Book Sense blurb for the book originated at Northshire. Reviews were strong, the author's five-city tour is done and Crown is committed to building Dash: the first printing was 50,000 copies. With sales since publication in February better than they were at a comparable point for Tulipomania, said v-p and executive director of publicity Tina Constable, "this puts us exactly where we want to be."
At Vroman's, which is setting up a section devoted to maritime history, Batavia was ordered more strongly than the other titles, and is selling well. "We have a stack on the Book Sense 76 table," said Anne Edkins. A novel about the same incident, The Company: The Story of a Murderer by Arabella Edge, was published last summer by Simon & Schuster, and now has 19,000 copies in print.
Edkins, meanwhile, has just picked up yet another watery adventure, Hyperion's The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks (June). "It says Captain Kidd was the victim of a smear campaign," she explained. "He wasn't really a pirate. He was a pirateer. What he did was legal." She's looking forward to doing a pirate display for the store to capture the excitement of the world at sea.