Book biz preps for drop in holiday sales

Call it the nightmare before Christmas.

With more than a month to go in the book industry’s top selling season, some publishers are projecting double-digit declines for book sales through the end of the year, compared with Christmas 2000.

That’s especially unwelcome news for Jack Welch’s publisher, Warner Books.

Last fall, in a deal considered risky under any circumstances, Warner paid $7.1 million for hard and softcover North American rights to the former G.E. topper’s memoir, “Jack: Straight From the Gut.”

Then, in a case of jaw-dropping bad luck, the house built its marketing campaign around the book’s publication date, Sept. 11.

Time Warner trade publishing head Laurence Kirschbaum said last year he’d have to sell one million copies in hardcover before breaking even.

In the wake of the AOL Time Warner merger, that appeared to be an achievable goal. No house seemed better positioned to leverage an asset like Welch through the many-tentacled media channels of its parent company.

That was before the terrorists attacks blew book talk from the airwaves, cleared AOL chat rooms and magazine pages of anything but crisis coverage and sucked the life out of the business book market.

Kirschbaum told Daily Variety Tuesday that the book “got off to a slow start,” but will have “a very good, ongoing life.”

He says “Jack” is on track to sell 750,000 copies by Jan. 1, and 200,000 copies more by the end of the first quarter next year. With additional sales of 100,000 overseas, he says, he’ll clear most of the book’s 1.1 million-copy first printing. That means the paperback, likely due out next year, will take the house into the black.

Other publishers say that’s a fantasy.

“Jack” is the sort of stocking stuffer that could see a sharp lift in the next few weeks and it’s still high on bestseller lists. But Welch has already wound down his publicity tour, and given the gloomy forecasts for December book sales, it may not have the legs to sustain high sales through winter.

By the end of September, adult trade book sales were down just 2% for the calendar year, according to the latest Assn. of American Publishers statistics. But publishers estimate they’ve grown softer since September, with certain categories, including business and brand-name fiction, hit especially hard as the public has turned its attention to other things.

Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum declined to discuss the Jack Welch book. But he did say this year, publishers can’t count on the bountiful sales of Christmas past.

“It’s not a matter of a dearth of strong titles,” Applebaum said. “It’s just that consumer confidence overall seems to be way down, and we’re anticipating a Christmas that may have more disappointments than successes.”

AS THE EARLY ALARM SYSTEM for studios hoping to net the next big book, the creative execs who run New York’s story departments form a tight-knit circle — talking constantly and swapping trade news, development details and manuscripts that have been either shopped or leaked.

That network has been hit by two key personnel changes in the last two weeks that could shift ever so slightly the studios’ grip on the Gotham book market.

Editor Joe Veltre has ankled St. Martin’s Press to join Miramax as director of development and editor at large for Talk Miramax Books.

And Paramount has downsized its New York development office. Director of development Aimee Shieh has ankled and the office’s freelance readers have been pinkslipped.

With Veltre on board, it’s clear that Miramax, already an aggressive buyer of books, is hungry for highly commercial material.

He’ll work alongside veep of creative affairs Jennifer Wachtel. But sources say Veltre’s focus will be thrillers, action adventures and mystery stories. Regan Graves, another St. Martin’s vet, also scouts books for Miramax as manager of development at the mini-major.

A senior editor at St. Martin’s Press, Veltre oversaw the Minotaur mass market mystery imprint and the film and TV tie-in program. As a book editor, he acquired and edited such books as “Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era” and “Beware the Night: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural.”

Veltre’s dual appointment also caps a strong year at Talk Miramax Books.

By contrast, Paramount’s decision to scale back its Gotham story office, comes in the wake of third-quarter losses of $190 million at Viacom, spurred by the September ad slowdown.

Under veep Patricia Burke, Paramount’s is the last standing studio development office in New York.

Burke has more than a year on her contract at Paramount, and the office, headquartered in the Viacom building at midtown, is likely to remain open for the time being. Par’s N.Y.-based story editor Scott Blumsack also remains on staff.

But if Par’s Gotham office does eventually close, it would herald an end to an era when studios installed execs in costly New York suites to feed material to producers on the lots.

These days, most producers aren’t serviced by their studios, but by their own execs, managers, agents and book scouts.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more