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Glory-bound: 'Oprah,' 'Ted,' hostage tales Hype, high hopes dominate book show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is what they were using to sell books at the recently concluded American Booksellers Association convention:

Huge parties. Cans of creamed corn. Red toy sports cars. Women with big chests. Men with bigger chests -- specifically, the pec-tacular model Fabio and Steve Sandalis (known as "the Topaz Man" for his beefcake covers on Topaz paperbacks). Buttons that read, "I'm a flasher." A facsimile of a most distinctly male part of the human anatomy.

The latter, used to promote a book about men's health, may have been the most disgusting -- and unwelcome -- sales ploy at the ABA convention, which wound up its annual Memorial Day weekend gathering Tuesday in Miami Beach. It's a good thing they don't use these approaches to win customers in bookstores, or else every literacy program in the country would die a quick death.

But this was the ABA convention, and its trademark loose, promotion-happy ambience recalled the tourism slogan of Miami: The Rules Are Different."

All said, it looks to be a reasonably good fall season in the book business. Hands down, Oprah Winfrey's autobiography should be the big seller in the nonfiction category, along with Joe McGinniss' biography of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Two former Iranian hostages, American journalist Terry Anderson and English clergyman Terry Waite, will have their memoirs out, as will former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A biography of Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., published by the Summit Group, the same Texas-based outfit that had a surprise best seller with its book on pitcher Nolan Ryan, should do well in the Chesapeake area.

Just as menopause was a big topic last year, expect to be reading a lot about aging in the next several months. Two books on the topic by established writers should do well: "The Fountain of Age," by Betty Friedan, and "Old Friends," an exquisite chronicle of the lives of two residents of a Massachusetts nursing home, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder.

New fiction will be coming from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, James Dickey, Frank Conroy and William Styron. Best sellers are sure to emerge from the new works by Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Robert James Waller, Herman Wouk and Anne Rice.

Strange days

It was a strange convention in several ways. The weather in Miami was supposed to be an enhancement for conventiongoers, but it rained most of the weekend (between 5 and 10 inches fell in South Florida on Monday). Attendance at some of the usual round of glitzy parties dropped after a Hispanic police officer was acquitted Friday in the shooting death of a black motorcyclist. There was only minor violence in Miami but much anxiety across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach.

Primarily, though, the prevailing theme at this, the ABA's 47th annual convention, was that independent bookstores -- the booksellers -- are finding it harder and harder to survive.

The sad irony about the American Booksellers Association's convention is that it has become less important to the very people to whom it's supposed to cater -- the booksellers themselves.

Instead, it's become a boon to the book publishers, media types, foreign publishers, agents and Hollywood representatives. A common observation in Miami Beach was that the convention is not as much of a trade fair as it is a rights fair -- a marketplace for selling foreign, TV and movie rights.

And although final registration figures weren't available, the prevailing wisdom among publishers and booksellers alike was that there were fewer independent bookstores represented at this ABA. And those who were there weren't buying much.

What they were doing was protesting, in large numbers, the difficult situation they face: that they are finding it hard to compete with "superstores" such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, which stock 100,000 or more titles; that they can't compete with chain bookstores that get discounts of nearly 50 percent from publishers on best sellers; that even with aggressive sales techniques and customer-friendly approaches, their profit margins hover between 2 percent and 3 percent, if they make money at all.

Times are hard

"It's very hard to make a profit in this business," said Diane Garrett, owner of Diane's Books in Greenwich, Conn., who describes herself as "passionate about books." Like many independent bookstore proprietors, she seeks out authors for book signings and readings at her store. She cultivates her customers and knows not only their reading habits but their family members' as well.

She says that she would not sell Madonna's raunchy "Sex" picture book last year because she thought it was "a travesty" -- and lost both money and customers for her decision.

"I work to make the inside of my store as wonderful as possible," Ms. Garrett concluded. "It's the outside part that concerns me."

ABA trends faulted

In an essay in the June 7 issue of The Nation, author and editor Elisabeth Sifton harshly criticized the ABA's drift away from the booksellers. "There have never been so many booksellers in our history -- resourceful, socially active and committed, well-read and good at business," she wrote in the essay, which was widely discussed at the convention. Yet, she argued, greedy business approaches by publishers, book wholesalers and the chain bookstores are harming these very people who "have an all but evangelical fervor about increasing readership and literacy . . ."

Ms. Sifton touched upon another recent trend at the ABA convention. She wrote that "the big-shot publishers are . . . creating and adjusting images of power and intention about just four or five of their biggest books in the next year; they are making deals that they hope will safeguard those precious properties."

This trend was most obvious at Alfred A. Knopf, a publisher with a reputation for literary excellence (among its authors are John Updike, Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), but more recently for ingenious and aggressive hype. A few years ago, promotion helped make an international hit of a slender, overwrought first novel, "Damage." Another first novel, the vastly superior "The Secret History," by Donna Tartt, likewise got a marketing push from Knopf last year that never would have been seen in the publisher's earlier, more genteel days.

At this convention, Knopf poured serious dollars into the marketing ofits two main fall releases, "Strip Tease," by Miami mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, and "Oprah: an Autobiography," by Oprah Winfrey and Joan Barthel. For Mr. Hiaasen, Knopf put on a lunch for booksellers and media at a chic Art Deco hotel in Miami Beach -- and the media kit included a can of creamed corn, an element of the macabre, surreal plot of "Strip Tease." Ms. Winfrey got the full treatment: a posh gathering for 2,000 at a downtown Miami hotel.

What was interesting was that "Strip Tease" and "Oprah" are, even without this full-scale hype, almost certain best sellers. Mr. Hiaasen, a Miami Herald columnist, already has earned a considerable audience through his earlier satirical novels about South Florida. Ms. Winfrey's book, essentially, is pre-sold, since she's one of the most recognizable and well-liked figures in America.

That was apparent at the convention as well. Except for the visit by Mrs. Thatcher on Tuesday, Ms. Winfrey was easily the star of the show.

And, finally, Oprah

At an authors' breakfast Sunday, she was a commanding presence, funny and engaging and forceful all at once. That's old news to Baltimoreans who got used to watching Ms. Winfrey on local TV in the 1970s, but it was clear that here was one person who would have no problem selling her book.

As she said to the booksellers Sunday: "Writing this book has been like 10 years of therapy for me. I'm so excited by it -- I wish that I could be on my own show selling this book!"

FALL PREVIEW

NONFICTION

"Oprah: An Autobiography,"by Oprah Winfrey and Joan Barthel (Knopf)

"The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy,"by Joe McGinniss (Simon & Schuster)

"Den of Lions: Memoirs of Seven Years,"by Terry Anderson (Crown)

"Taken on Trust,"by Terry Waite (Harcourt Brace)

"See I Told You So,"by Rush Limbaugh (Pocket Books)

L "The Downing Street Years,"by Margaret Thatcher (Doubleday)

"Old Friends,"by Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin)

"The Fountain of Age,"by Betty Friedan (Simon & Schuster)

FICTION "Strange Pilgrims,"by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Knopf)

"The Robber Bride,"by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday)

"To the White Sea,"by James Dickey (Houghton Mifflin)

"A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales of Youth,"by William Styron (Random House)

"Nightmares and Dreamscapes,"by Stephen King (Viking)

"Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend,"by Robert James Waller (Warner Books)

"Without Remorse,"by Tom Clancy (Putnam)

"Lasher,"by Anne Rice (Knopf)

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