With more than 1,000 new titles published each week in 2003, the big question for publishers and retailers remained: What is driving sales of the books that are working? For hardcovers from the major houses, the answer involved a constellation of variables: having the right book, with the right media coverage, at a time when people are in stores. Oh, and the right price didn't hurt, either. The trick was figuring all that out ahead of time.
In the first quarter of 2003, as the threat of war in Iraq hung over the country, it was harder to get the formula right. Many people turned to TV and the Internet for instant news coverage, rather than to nonfiction books for deeper background on the country's predicament, as they did after September 11, and store traffic was down. On the fiction side, price sensitivity remained a significant factor, especially for hardcover fiction, as it has been since the economy began to slow in late 2000. "War or not, I don't know how many novels would have broken through," said Sally Lindsay, buyer at Koen Book Distributors in Moorestown, N.J.
The intense media focus on the invasion of Iraq may have hurt a few big books, such as Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron by whistleblower and Time magazine Woman of the Year Sherron Watkins and journalist Mimi Swartz (Doubleday, Mar. 25; $26). But the war's early spring timing wasn't as damaging as it could have been—if it had coincided with May and June retail promotions for Mother's Day, Father's Day and school graduations, or the leadup to Christmas.
As TV images of artillery convoys, bloody guerrilla attacks and soldiers lounging in palatial ruins abated, retailers saw an uptick in sales. For many, June was a turning point, as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books in memory; the first weekend sales of the fifth Harry Potter novel wildly outgrossed the box-office take of the newly released film The Hulk; Oprah launched her classics book club; and Dan Brown's fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code (published in March), was well on its way to becoming a phenomenon.
While self-help and inspiration titles did well all year, in the fall, politics overtook the nonfiction bestseller list. As Democratic candidates for president dominated the media and vied for votes, liberal books pulled measurably ahead of conservative ones. In fiction, the emergence of a second runaway bestseller, Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, combined with an unusually high number of films based on bestselling novels—including Seabiscuit, Master and Commander, Mystic River, Cold Mountain and House of Sand and Fog—prompted retailers to marvel at what an extraordinary year it had become. Even major fiction authors whose sales had declined after September 11 stabilized somewhat. "They were still down, but less than what we expected," said Borders and Waldenbooks' fiction category manager, Joe Holtzman.
What follows is a look at some of the year's particularly problematic publications, as well as some of the season's surprises, in an attempt to make sense of how the media and other factors contributed to the performance of books to which publishers or retailers had pinned their hopes.
News Cycle Blues
Amid the uncertainty surrounding the war, a handful of publishers gambled on drop-in titles by brand-name news teams or those involved in the struggle to control Iraq, many with announced first printings of 100,000 copies. But booksellers placed cautious orders. Slick illustrated books like 21 Days to Baghdad: Photos and Dispatches from the Battlefield (Time Books, June; $24.95), 21 Days to Baghdad: A Chronicle of the Iraq War by Reuters journalists (Reuters, June 9; $29.95) and the book-and-DVD package Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Insider Story by NBC Enterprises (Andrews McMeel, Sept. 1; $29.95) "were mostly hard copies of what people had already seen on TV," said Robert Fields, buyer for history and social science for Waldenbooks. Narrative titles like The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the First Marine Division by Ray L. Smith and Bing West (Bantam, Sept. 9; $24.95;), did somewhat better, but none really took off. "People may be waiting to buy the best books on Iraq rather than just getting the first ones out," said Ann Cassidy, history buyer for Borders.
For B&N merchandising v-p Bob Wietrak, another key issue for these instant titles was that "there's still no conclusion to the war." By contrast, he attributed the surprise success of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, Jarhead (Scribner, Mar.; $24) to the former Marine's perspective on the 1991 conflict, from which most soldiers had come home. But overall, readers of military books didn't waver much from their favorite subject. The biggest such title of 2003, Flyboys by James Bradley (Little, Brown, Sept. 30; $25.95), was in the perennially popular WWII history category.
For Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who emerged as one of the Iraq war's highest profile soldiers when her supply unit was ambushed and she was later rescued from an Iraqi hospital, media retread was a major problem. Though Lynch was arguably the year's most sought-after talk show guest, the coverage didn't maximize sales of I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story by Rick Bragg (Knopf, Nov. 11; $23.95), which hit the New York Times bestseller list for one week at #1 and stayed on the list for three more weeks. At Barnes and Noble, Borders and wholesalers Ingram and Koen, the book was a pronounced disappointment, as it clearly was for Knopf, which paid Lynch and Bragg $1 million for world rights, according to industry reports.
Even before Lynch's book was signed up, "her position as America's sweetheart was tainted by investigative reports that suggested [her rescue] was cooked up for the cameras," said Ingram senior buyer Nancy Stewart. Another problem was that too much of her story was available in other media, from a 19-page Time cover story and book excerpt to a 90-minute interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Primetime Live, a two-part interview with Today's Katie Couric, and People and Vanity Fair profiles. "People won't buy a book unless it holds something they don't already know," said B&N's Wietrak.
While acknowledging that the headlines cannibalized some of the readership, Knopf senior v-p of publicity Paul Bogaards also observed that the media "didn't review the book; they looked at her life through the prism of the media. As a publisher, you can work with your author on message points, and you work hard to make sure the book delivers. But if the author is ineffective, you've got a problem. At the end of the day, the book buyer responds to many stimuli and the book can get lost in there."
Like Lynch, Elizabeth Smart was another big media "get" in 2003. But Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope by her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, with Laura Morton (Doubleday, Oct. 28; $22.95), didn't transcend its news cycle either. Part of the problem was that the story of the kidnapping of a young Mormon girl and her return to her family last spring didn't hold "a bigger lesson for America," according to Ingram's Stewart. "Most people followed it on TV until it all worked out, and that was the end of it."
Doubleday president and publisher Steve Rubin believes Bringing Elizabeth Home was strengthened by the "editorial and marketing savvy" of Doubleday's religion imprint, and maintains the house didn't overpay for the book or overprint it. But he also admitted that the hardcover sales of nearly 258,000, weren't as high as he'd expected. "It was on the New York Times list for three weeks, but it got too much PR," Rubin said, referring to author appearances on Dateline, Oprah, Today, The View and Hannity and Colmes, as well as first serial in People. "We're learning that maybe you don't want to expose the authors so much. It got very ugly with the media; we were stuck in the middle all the time. Up to a point, it was in our control, but we let them do what they wanted to do, and it was too much."
With instant books like the ones about Lynch and Smart, or Three Weeks in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper by Charles A. Moose and Charles Fleming (Dutton, Sept. 15; $23.95), Ingram's Stewart sees the collision of two forces. "There are more event-driven books being published in an environment of super information saturation. TV, radio, the Internet and satellite interviews are spreading the word much more quickly than in the past, and people are starting to see the books as unnecessary," she said. Though the sharply spiking sales of these titles can still be lucrative, the challenge for retailers is to avoid overstock, while for publishers it's to keep advances and printings in check.
If instant books arouse skepticism in some readers, those titles with a little more distance from an event aren't necessarily positioned more advantageously. On the face of it, Gail Sheehy's Middletown, America: One Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope (Random, Sept. 2; $25.95) had several elements going for it, according to Stewart: Sheehy hadn't done a book in a while, she focused on the human side of September 11, and she's a respected writer. "If anyone could make something out of this, she could," Stewart said, though she still had her doubts about the book's arrival so far after the fact. In the end, Middletown didn't break out. The same was true for Stephen Brill's After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era (S&S, Apr. 7; $29.95). "It may be that something different is at work with these books than the others, because people were hit so hard with so much," concluded Stewart.
Powerful Women Take the Lead
In a year when a number of nonfiction books were hurt by too much media exposure, there were also instances where books succeeded amid saturation coverage. Perhaps the most obvious was Hillary Clinton's memoir, Living History (S&S, June; $28), which sold a million copies within its first month on sale after a Barbara Walters special, a three-part interview with Katie Couric, appearances on Larry King and CBS Sunday Morning, and a cover excerpt in Time magazine. Though reviewers pervasively complained that the former first lady revealed little about how she felt about her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky (an expectation, it may be noted, that the media created in the first place), didn't seem to detract from the book's appeal.
Another example was A. Scott Berg's "unobjective" memoir and biography of Katharine Hepburn, Kate Remembered (Putnam, July 11; $25.95), which was secretly written in the years preceding the Oscar-winning actress's death at 96, published 11 days later and lavished with every kind of media attention. Some critics charged that Berg didn't succeed in unraveling the truth about Hepburn's personal life, but it didn't matter. The book ended the year at #12 on PW's list of nonfiction bestsellers.
Other memoirs by leading women—Queen Noor's Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life (Miramax, Mar.; $25.95), former first lady Barbara Bush's Reflections: Life After the White House (Scribner, Oct. 20; $28), and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright's memoir with Bill Woodward, Madame Secretary (Miramax, Sept.; $27.95)—also ranked among PW's biggest biographies for 2003. "All have led extraordinary lives, and the books were well done," said Koen's Sally Lindsay, observing that Clinton and Albright's books, in particular, appeal to both male and female readers. They were also perceived as a good value, according to Ingram's Stewart: "There's a sense you're getting your money's worth, with the story of a full life."
Powerful men are the perennial subjects of bestsellers—just look at the success of Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin (S&S, July 1; $30), the third major biography of this founding father in the last two years, and the strength of cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's second memoir with Sally Jenkins, Every Second Counts (Broadway, Oct. 7; $24.95). But other aspirants to the list didn't hold their ground last year, partly because they may not have had a strong enough presence in the media, and partly because of positioning.
One prominent example was former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin's memoir with Jacob Weisberg, In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington (Random, Nov. 18; $35). While Barnes & Noble and Ingram weren't entirely disappointed with the book's performance, Random House is likely to be, given the whopping $3 million the house paid for world English rights, while netting only about 116,500 copies in the U.S. One problem was Rubin's profile: "He wasn't flashy enough as a [political] player, though what he had to say was more substantial than, say, Dick Morris," said Stewart, who also identified the book's title as off-putting and vague. Though Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams got a big billing at last year's BEA, many booksellers had more modest expectations for A Farther Shore: Ireland's Long Road to Peace (Random, Nov. 4; $25.95) and were still underwhelmed. "Gerry Adams has written other memoirs, and the media came out after the book did," explained Borders's Cassidy. It was also another case where the story wasn't over, since peace in Northern Ireland hasn't been achieved.
Head to Head Bestsellers
Many retailers expressed astonishment that two massive fiction bestsellers coexisted on bestseller lists this year. While making a distinction between the grassroots groundswell behind Dan Brown's breakout and Mitch Albom's successful reconnection with the vast audience for his previous nonfiction book, Tuesdays with Morrie, they also noted that early bookseller buzz and major retail displays played a crucial role in both cases, before media attention and consumer word of mouth took hold.
With The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, Mar. 18; $24.95), an unusually large 10,000-galley mailing helped stir bookseller excitement about Doubleday's one-day, 200,000-copy laydown, which was supported by major positioning at the chains. Teaser ads and a New York Times review by Janet Maslin that called the book more satisfying than Harry Potter also helped push the book to #1 after its first week on sale. Doubleday's Rubin described the book as the only bestseller he knows of that's remained on an upward trajectory, with nearly six million copies in print in a single year and only occasional dips that so far have not dropped below its starting point a year ago (which was somewhat lower than average because the book went on sale the week the U.S. invaded Iraq).
Meanwhile, Hyperion publisher Bob Miller credits Albom's presentation to a standing-room-only audience of 500 booksellers at BEA for jump-starting The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Sept. 23; $19.95). "It showed how sincere he was, and how thematically connected the book was to Tuesdays with Morrie," Miller said. Albom also took the message directly to readers in a nine-city pre-pub campaign that preceded the 700,000-copy laydown. "It was worth the investment," said Miller. "You had 500 to 1,000 people showing up at each event, being really moved by what he was saying. After pub, he went on to 33 cities. In fact, he's still doing appearances."
Rubin and Miller agreed that discounted copies available via mass merchants and price clubs helped expand the market for these books. At the chains, both titles were discounted heavily, which helped sustain their runs and enhanced their competitive advantage over less-well-known books, allowing their sales to make up for what was lost on the mid-tier, said Borders's Holzman.
Mixed TV Reception
For midlist hardcover and paperback titles, breakouts were more unpredictable. Many of the year's most notable performances were helped more by TV book club selections than becoming the talk of BEA. In particular, booksellers have welcomed Oprah's new focus on "books that have stood the test of time"—aka her classics book club. Though sales of her first pick, John Steinbeck's East of Eden (Penguin; $16), performed as well as the biggest titles in Oprah's previous club with sales of 1.68 million copies, the next two selections haven't come close to that figure. Booksellers attribute the disparity to the excitement of the club's launch last summer and Steinbeck's status as a major American writer, whose birthday centennial was celebrated extensively in California and other locations in 2001.
Although some lamented that Oprah's new club is not creating new readers or reliably drawing them into stores once a month like the old one did, booksellers are promoting the picks and say they would rather have the club than not. Oprah is "definitely expanding interest in the classics," said Borders fiction buyer Robert Teicher, who is also pleased that she's selecting paperbacks, "which generally sell better than hardcovers."
As for the Today show and Good Morning America book clubs, they are "good for keeping books in front of people who don't usually spend discretionary time or money reading," said Borders's genre fiction category manager, Allison Elsby, though she and other retailers were less sanguine about their commercial effects. "Every so often they pick the right book at the right moment," said Daniel Goldin, buyer for the Harry Schwartz bookshops in Wisconsin. "They don't usually break out a book from scratch, but they can help a book that's already starting to work," he said, citing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Doubleday, July 31; $22.95). That book had nearly 50,000 copies in print after six printings before it became a Today show pick, and went back to press 15 more times for a total of about 140,000 copies, according to Doubleday's Rubin.
Today show picks often have a bigger following than Good Morning America's selections, Goldin noted, but there doesn't seem to be a large core that supports every book. One explanation for that might be that both clubs have selected a lot of hardcovers, said Borders's Teicher. Other booksellers suggested that it might be because the anchors don't always connect with the book or author. "Neither club has found [its] voice," said Borders's fiction buyer Leah Rex. "The selections are all over the place. Oprah got a rap for affliction lit, but her viewers knew her taste and trusted it. With these other shows, it's hard to get a sense of what the books are going to be like." But, Rex added, it's still exciting to see books like The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, Sept. 17; $25) take off, considering it's "a 600-plus—page book with an author whose name doesn't have a ring. Readers found it, and the book had an impressive performance among a lot of big names last fall."
So while it was a very good year for commercial fiction, it wasn't the best of times for mid-list literary authors who remained outside the media spotlight. Said Koen's Lindsay, "The bottom line is that people are getting a lot more discerning about how, when and where they are spending money. It's not like five years ago when people had a lot of disposable income. People are getting downsized, and there are too many books. It's not fair, but a lot of good stuff isn't selling."