No buzz at fair

BRITISH AUTHOR KEN FOLLETT, once a titan among thriller writers, has seen the sales of his novels go flat in the 1990s, dwarfed by homegrown thrillers by the likes of John Grisham and Michael Crichton. Surprisingly, just one of his novels has reached the bigscreen — 1981’s “Eye of the Needle.”

But thanks to a two-pronged effort by his agents, Writers House prexy Al Zuckerman and CAA’s Robert Bookman, that may change. Follett’s new novel, “Code to Red” is under contract with a new house, Penguin-Putnam. Scheduled for a Dec. 4 release, it will be a lead title for the Dutton imprint. And Red Wagon Prods., under the supervision of new prexy Gail Lyon, has taken a six-figure option on the book. It’s the first acquisition spearheaded by Lyon since Red Wagon partners Douglas Z. Wick and Lucy Fisher lured her from Jersey Films.

WHILE PUBLISHING EXECUTIVES were schmoozing their way through a busy regimen of parties and media lunches at Book Expo America last weekend in Chicago, a controversial manuscript was quietly making the rounds in New York.

Tentatively titled “The Japanese Doctors,” it’s Daniel Barenblatt’s nonfiction account of a group of doctors and scientists enlisted by the Japanese military to develop a biological warfare program in WWII. Experiments were conducted on humans, mainly Chinese civilians and some American POWs. Almost all of them died.

“It’s pretty gruesome,” said Tim Duggan, the acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, which took the book off the market with what is understood to be a an alleged $300,000 preemptive advance.

Neither Duggan nor Barenblatt’s agent, Susan Rabiner, attended BEA, a sign that America’s biggest book fair is losing its relevance for an entire sector of the book trade — lit agents and book and film scouts for whom rights information is now available at the touch of keystroke. Major agents like Andrew Wylie, Amanda Urban and Lynn Nesbit were no-shows, and attendees were hard-pressed to name even one hotly sought-after property.

“It’s a big social event,” said Todd Siegel of Franklin & Siegel Associates, which scouts for Universal, CBS Entertainment and Industry Entertainment, among other clients. Siegel escorted CBS’ Katherine Petrie to the fair — one of very few entertainment execs to be found browsing the aisles.

For those who came, like Miramax director of development Jennifer Wachtel, it afforded the chance to visit with dozens of publishers in one swoop. It’s the only time, she said, “that you have the whole spectrum of American publishing laid out in front of you.”

Unlike 1999’s Frankfurt Book Fair, however, which resulted in a bidding frenzy for Martin Levy’s then-untranslated novel “If Only It Were True,” no book emerged out of the breach to become the buzz of the fair.

IF ONE BOOK WAS ON THE MINDS of all BEA attendees, it was the tome most conspicuous for its absence: J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter 4.” Pandemonium will reign in bookstores come midnight July 8 when booksellers pry open the crates from Scholastic and put the plucky young wizard’s latest adventure on sale. (Amazon.com head Jeff Bezos has said there are already roughly 150,000 advance orders for the book) But the book is a closely guarded secret, and little information about it was available at the Scholastic booth.

One couldn’t turn a corner at the fair, however, without encountering a Harry Potter calendar, poster or address book, the result of a hugely ambitious marketing campaign by Warner Bros., which bought licensing rights from agent Christopher Little along with the film option.

Odd as it may seem for Warner Bros. to roll out a series of major licensing deals to support another company’s book, it turns out these products have nothing to with the new book from Scholastic. Starting in the third quarter of 2000, says Warner Bros. president of consumer products Dan Romanelli, a battery of Harry Potter puzzles, collectible figures, kites, electric trains and even a board-game variation of Quiddage (a kind of broomstick polo) will hit the market.

But all are based entirely on characters and events from the first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Scorcerer’s Stone,” now skedded for a November 2001 release as a WB feature.

LT. GEN. CLAUDIA KENNEDY, the highest ranking woman in the U.S. Army, who made national headlines in March after accusing another general of sexual harassment, has inked a book contract with Warner Books. Kennedy has retained William Morris to represent her interests in publishing and all other areas. The book deal was brokered by WMA chair Norman Brokaw, WMA veep Mel Berger, Warner Trade Publishing chair Laurence Kirschbaum and Warner Trade publishing prexy Maureen Egan.

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