It's a mystery, every season. Why do some books immediately soar to the top of the best seller list while others fizzle and die? How come some books are prominently displayed on a table in the front of the store, stacks and stacks of them, while others languish in the rear of the store never to be picked up? Who decides which among the 50,000 books published annually have a chance to be noticed?
If you want to penetrate the mystery of how the book business works, there is a way to start. Dated August 7, Publishers Weekly's "Guide To Fall Books" announces over 472 pages nearly 4,000 titles to hit the stores in the coming season.
With a modicum of shrewd observation, the average reader can force open a window onto the secrets of the book trade. You can discover which books publishers have decreed you are meant to buy, which will therefore be overwhelmingly available, and reviewed, and thus which you are likely to read.
This chunky document, which, by the way, makes great beach reading, cannot be digested at a single sitting. First come almost 300 pages of advertisements. Each publisher innocently lists all titles for the new season alphabetically and by month of publication, as if none were favored, none about to be granted thousands of dollars of publicity money while others will have to rest content with close to zero.
The principle is that the smaller the publisher, the more flamboyant the ad. This is logical. Major publishers like Random House, with a legendary sales force, do not rely on Publishers Weekly to stock its books in the stores. Their sales reps have already lured booksellers with descriptions of their wares, focusing on the "hot" titles, while mumbling about the books not expected to sell. Advance orders for the fall list have long ago been sent.
Yet since a sales force tends to sell what sells itself, Random House and Simon and Schuster both have taken large ads again. Only the stingiest publishers deny their authors this one certain opportunity to appear at the bazaar. In the new fall issue, Firefly and Four Walls Eight Windows have taken ads, but not literary publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux with an above-it-all, defeatist attitude.
An abundance of discoveries awaits the patient reader, titles that may never again be advertised by their publishers. Whatever is happening in your life, you can find a book to help you through it, like Morrow's November offering: "Surviving Your Hospitalization: Everything You Need to Know About Your Hospital, Your Doctor, the Nursing Staff - and Your Bill." Where but among the riches of these advertisements would you otherwise hear of a book called "How Are Men Like Noodles?" (Andrews & McMeel) or "Dog People: Writers and Artists on Canine Companionship" (Artisan)?
In Publishers Weekly's fall issue you can discover unjustly obscure publishers whose names are not household words because they cannot afford to make them so. Yet their lists may be more intriguing than those of the so-called major publishers. Counterpoint, for example, offers a splendid banquet: British Labour leader Michael Foot on H. G. Wells, Jean Lacouture on the Jesuits, a new Solzhenitsyn - and the collected stories of Evan Connell.
Ancestral voices, vampires
You would not know about the startlingly brilliant list the University of Chicago Press is offering this coming season were it not for Publishers Weekly: stories by Marguerite Yourcenar, Conor Cruise O'Brien's "Ancestral Voices" on Ireland, Judge Richard A. Posner on "Aging and Old Age," feminist Nina Auerbach's "Our Vampires, Ourselves" - along with works by E. M. Cioran, Hannah Arendt and Leszek Kolakowski. So we are reminded that our culture yet transcends "Bridges of Madison County," Stephen King and Anne Rice.
But the section scrutinized by everyone in the know, and divided by subject - Art & Architecture to Women's Studies - is the catalog of featured books, particularly the Fall 1995 Hardcovers. Authors turn first to this section in search of their forthcoming title. If the book has not been granted one of these two-line descriptions, a cold hand clutches at the author's heart. Reviewers are likely to ignore the book. Now is the time to take comfort in the publisher's advertisement, where at least the book is listed along with everyone else's.
Unknown even to some authors is that these favored books are selected with the help of the publisher. Publicists invariably send a special list that does not include every one of its titles, agent Rosalie Siegel points out. Or the list is arranged in an order that informs Publishers Weekly of which titles are meant to be featured. Here the judicious reader of Publishers Weekly can easily discern how extensively a publisher will be promoting a book. The description is invariably followed by such squibs provided by the publisher as "Advertising, 7-city author tour."
Comparing the advertisements with the featured titles, it becomes clear that not all the likely books receive special mention. Faye Dunaway's memoirs have made it, but not Kate Millett's. In sports, Simon and Schuster seems to be putting its money on the celebrity hype of Reggie Miller's autobiography, not on the more intriguing "Falling From Grace: Can Pro Basketball Be Saved?" by veteran sportswriter Terry Pluto. You need the ad to learn that Pluto's book exists. "Every book does not have an equal chance," Publishers Weekly editor Nora Rawlinson points out.
"It's about 60 percent accurate for what will be the big books, Viking editor Don Fehr thinks. "All it shows is where publishers plan to put their money."
Publishers Weekly compensates for publishers' decisions on which books to promote with its own sparkling boxed featurettes. Rawlinson calls these "wonderful surprises," books that appealed to the editors "for some quirky reason." In full color with catchy titles, these boxes focus on unusual trends - or titles - the better for a bookseller to take a second look and order a book hitherto ignored.
An author whom a publisher has written off in advance is given a second chance. Biographer Deirdre Bair ("Anais Nin") believes that the Publishers Weekly announcement issue "generated the first buzz of excitement" for each of her three biographies. Booksellers noticed and increased their purchase orders.
In the new fall issue the boxes seize the eye. A voluptuous Marilyn Monroe sings at a microphone under the headline "Happy Birthday, Mr. Miller," announcing four Arthur Miller releases on the occasion of his 80th birthday, including what's available on CD-ROM. "Prose and Posterity" directs us to posthumous novels by Albert Camus, Stanley Elkin and William Golding.
"Move over T. S. Eliot"
"Giddyup" lists new horse books; "More Truckin with 'The Dead'" is about a new Grateful Dead title, a prescient choice indeed by the editors given the untimely death this month of Jerry Garcia. "Lives Under Scrutiny" chooses two biographies Publishers Weekly finds excellent: Gail Levin on Edward Hopper and Lyle Leverich's long awaited "The Unknown Tennessee Williams." The editors seem determined to have featured less commercial titles. "Move Over, T. S. Eliot," points to an 800-page anthology of "Poems for the Millennium."
Bosnia, cat books ("Kitty Litter-ature"), gay literature, a book about the tea mushroom, said to cure asthma and arthritis - Publishers Weekly twice a year floods the reader with an almost overwhelming range of voices, both those favored by the publisher and those by the magazine. It is of course about business: all these features represent suggestions to booksellers for front-of-the-store displays. But they also make books exciting not only for those who sell, but also for those who read, and even for those who have written the books.
Publishers Weekly Aug. 7 issue, marked "Fall," is available for $7.95 in Baltimore at Encore books, Waldonbooks and the Hamilton News Mart on Harford Road. You'll learn what is happening. As for what made publishers choose some books to promote and not others, even the publishers themselves rarely are right about whether a book will sell. The mystery remains intact. The book-buying reader retains, after all this pre-determined effort, the final say.
* Joan Mellen is the author of 12 books, some of which have been featured in Publishers Weekly and some not. Her new book is "Hammett and Miss Hellman" to be published next May by HarperCollins. It remains to be seen whether it will be given its two lines of fame in Publishers Weekly's Spring Announcement issue.