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08.10.09

Dan Brown: Book Killer

The Da Vinci Code sequel is striking fear in authors like Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry, who want their books out first. Sara Nelson asks: Is Dan Brown publishing’s angel or demon?

The Da Vinci Code sequel is striking fear in authors like Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry, who want their books on shelves before The Lost Symbol. Sara Nelson asks: Is Dan Brown publishing’s angel or demon?

Who’s afraid of Big Bad Dan Brown?

Everybody in Book Land it seems. To those who work at Doubleday, Brown’s publisher, the September 15 publication date of The Lost Symbol, the please-let-it-be-a-blockbuster followup to The Da Vinci Code, is a make or break day, or at least the beginning of a make or break month. They’re responsible, and the proverbial heads could roll if the book, which is said to have a first global English-language printing of 6.5 million, doesn’t sell well. Those on the outside—other agents, publishers and writers—consider it a new sort of D-Day. Expecting the book to explode, they’d prefer to scuttle like cockroaches to get out of its way.

There’s the theory that being published on or around a big book’s big day might prove a boon for everybody. But that didn’t particularly work with the Harry Potter books—people came in for their latest hit of Hogwarts and didn’t much stray from the shopping list.

“I had my patch of beach all staked out with my umbrella and towel,” says thriller author Joseph Finder, whose eighth book, Vanished, is scheduled to appear on August 18. Given that most “big books” are usually scheduled for September, he and his publisher, St. Martin’s, had a pretty uninterrupted view of the two-to-four-week “runway” that can determine a book’s success. But now he has company from two other commercial novelists: Terry Brooks’ The Princess of Landover will be released on August 18, and Larry McMurtry’s Rhino Ranch on August 11.

the-lost-symbol-book-cover
The Lost Symbol. By Dan Brown. 528 Pages. Doubleday Books $29.95. ()

Were these books—which in tone and audience could be considered competitors to The Lost Symbol—moved because of the Dan Brown factor? Good luck getting anybody at their publishers (Del Rey and Simon & Schuster respectively) to go on record saying so. (The only confirmed move I’ve heard of is for a Free Press title, My River Chronicles by Jessica Dulong. This memoir about a dotcommer who becomes a fireboat engineer was fast-tracked to September 8 from its original date of, yup, September 15.) And it was so widely reported back in April that September 15 was DB-Day that publishers had plenty of time to switch their other authors’ pub dates. (“What we really hate,” says one longtime book executive, “is when a book gets rushed onto a list out of nowhere, and you’ve already locked your titles into promotions and coverage; that’s when your author gets bumped from TV shows and out of store windows.”) Still, everybody knows pub dates matter—and get changed all the time.

As the number of media outlets covering books shrink, and as fewer stores—think Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com—control more of how books get promoted and displayed, you don’t want your little first novel (or your potential blockbuster, more likely) to be hit by an avalanche of Dan Brown articles, TV interviews,  and step ladders. “It’s standard procedure to try to determine when other houses are publishing important books,” says a marketing executive at Penguin. “We often change our dates accordingly.” That, and the need, ever more desperate, to make sure your book lands at the top of the dwindling number of bestseller lists; because those lists are relative, no self-respecting publisher would want to put his Patricia Cornwell, say, up against Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, even more so if they have previously landed at No. 1 so a good part of an agent/author’s job is manipulating that pub date.

Still, it’s simply not possible to release only one book at a time, and even Doubleday has some big names that can’t help but compete for floor and media space with the megastar. Pat Conroy’s South of Broad, for example, has always been an August book and has already received plenty of publisher and bookseller attention, thanks in part to stepped-up attention from the author’s agent, Marly Rusoff, who has been heavily involved with the re-launch of PatConroy.com. But if I were Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer, whose long-awaited book about Pat Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, is slated for the same pub date, I might be a little anxious about the fact that my publisher Doubleday has been so preoccupied with their “star project” that at least one wag has already dubbed them DBDay. Still, publishers insist, there is plenty of in-house marketing muscle to go around, and besides, Krakauer and Jonathan Lethem, whose Doubleday novel, Chronic City, is due a month later, attract a different kind of reader.

What’s more, there’s the theory that being published on or around a big book’s big day might prove a boon for everybody:  It’s the “one high tide raises all boats” theory of bookselling, the idea that bringing a potential reader into a store for a certain book increases the chances that more than that book gets sold.That theory didn’t particularly work with the Harry Potter books—despite massive publicity and foot traffic, people came in for their latest hit of Hogwarts and didn’t much stray from the shopping list. “The way people buy now (i.e. online) reduces that in-store discovery factor,” says one longtime marketing director.

But surely there is one class of books that can’t help but benefit from the Brown-ing of America, and that’s the ripoffs, the guide books, the unabashed fanzines. Take, for example, William Morrow’s forthcoming Secrets of the Symbols: The Unauthorized Guide to Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which will examine the “alternate histories... [and] labyrinth of conspiracies... that have populated Dan Brown’s blockbusters,”much as author Daniel Burstein’s previous books examined Brown’s earlier efforts. That one’s sure to be a blockbuster in its own right, right? Well, right—except I can’t for the life of me figure out why it won’t be in stores until well after The Lost Symbol launches and the all-important Christmas season ends. Its pub date is now slated for December 29.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.