Winter is prime season for suspense, when publishers aim for the sweet spot between blockbusters, praying that a fresh face will break through. This year, St. Martin's is laying odds that Joseph Finder will finally get his due when his fifth novel, Paranoia, arrives on January 20—a week after John le Carré's Absolute Friends (Little, Brown, Jan. 14) and two weeks before John Grisham's The Last Juror (Doubleday, Feb. 3). Though it's positioned nearly head to head with Brad Meltzer's new Capitol Hill thriller, The Zero Game (Warner, Jan. 15), and targets his audience of young professionals, many booksellers believe that Finder's fresh voice and twisty tale of corporate espionage may take a significant bite out of Meltzer's market.

The novel focuses on Adam Cassidy, a low-level sales manager at a high-tech firm who's blackmailed into spying on a company that may be developing a paradigm-shifting optical chip. Passing himself off as a top-flight marketer, he enters a glowing world of ambition and success whose flipside is utter disillusionment. "It's appealing because the main character isn't your typical medical examiner or ex-cop with a vendetta. He's a charismatic slacker who pulls a great prank, gets found out by his boss, then watches his life go downhill," said Sally Lindsay, buyer at the Moorestown, N.J., wholesaler Koen, who believes that Paranoia will appeal to several age groups and both genders.

In addition to memorable characterizations—such as an executive coach with a Ph.D. in behavioral psych and "a slender body she obviously worked hard at," who teaches Cassidy how to "synchronize" his gestures with his new colleagues—the plot packs a lot of surprises. "I was fascinated by all the intrigue about who's using who," said Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley, whose substantial order will go into front table displays. "There are definitely enough original elements to distinguish this work from the pack," concurred Dan Mayer, mystery and thriller buyer at Borders, which took a bigger position than B&N at front-of-store, backed by a campaign to get the galley into the hands of Borders and Walden store managers.

Finder himself is also a selling point. A Sovietologist and member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, he conducted intensive interviews with executives at Apple Computer, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard to get the details right. SMP senior editor Keith Kahla admits, "Finder may have suffered as a writer from being published each time as though his publisher was going to hit it out of the park." But the hiatus since 1998, when Morrow published High Crimes (which hit the New York Times paperback extended list as a movie tie-in last year), has helped him make a fresh start. A film deal and rights sales in seven countries have also boosted his profile.

A Post-Da Vinci Marketing Plan

When it comes to breaking out thrillers, Doubleday's intensive word-of-mouth campaign for The Da Vinci Code has set a high standard, especially since that hardcover now has 4.1 million copies in print. Like Doubleday, St. Martin's has impressed booksellers with its seven-month campaign of tried-and-true marketing tactics. And the sustained increase in Paranoia's total orders—from 30,000 to 125,000—along with its selection as a Book Sense mystery/suspense pick, have made it clear the effort is paying off.

After featuring the galley at BEA, the house returned to press five times, for a total of 8,000 advance copies—"far and away our largest mailing to date," according to v-p and associate publisher John Cunningham. Finder also spoke at breakfasts and dinners at four regional bookseller shows, and has received strong early reviews (PW Forecasts gives it a star, p. 52).

On the consumer front, the house has printed 50,000 excerpts for placement at bookstore cash registers, and bought pre-pub ads to drive potential readers to a trendy little game at As the book goes on sale, SMP will follow up with a full-page New York Times ad, along with promotion in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and major regional papers, while the author embarks on a five-city tour. Given Finder's frequent essays in the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post, major reviews shouldn't be too far behind.

For St. Martin's, Paranoia is the latest example of its push to expand its commercial fiction list, which gained credibility with Janet Evanovich's first #1 bestseller in 2000 and the runaway success of The Nanny Diaries in 2002. But the house's more recent attempts have met with mixed results: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's chick lit debut, The Dirty Girls Social Club (Apr.), achieved respectable but not stellar results, and in a tough season for suspense novels, Frederick Forsythe's comeback, Avenger (Sept.), has already been marked down in stores.

While SMP's Cunningham acknowledges "a reticence in the marketplace about thrillers," he believes that Paranoia's x-factor is in the enthusiasm it has generated among early readers, and the way it taps into the economic zeitgeist. As he put it, "the essence of work life now is a paranoid feeling."