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Pubs get drubbed

Carefully laid marketing plans for some of the year’s top book titles have been obliterated. In one of many severe disruptions to the New York business world caused by last week’s terrorist attack, the publishing world is reeling.

That doesn’t bode well for highly anticipated fall titles like “Jack,” the memoir of former G.E. chief Jack Welch; Salman Rushdie’s new novel, “Fury”; or Stephen Ambrose’s new book about WWII, “The Wild Blue.”

Traffic of manuscripts and proposals — generally heavy this time of year — has nearly come to a standstill. Publishers are buying few new books, but are rushing back to press old books on Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center and anything bearing messages of spiritual uplift.

America is still buying books. At Barnes & Noble superstores last Tuesday, sales dropped 55% compared to Sept. 11, 2000 — but were up more than 4% last weekend over the same period last year.

Yet readers’ priorities have changed.

On Amazon’s bestseller list, updated hourly, two of the top three Tuesday were a book on germ warfare and a university press book on the Twin Towers. Books on 16th century French soothsayer Nostradamus are flying out of bookstores faster than novels by John Grisham or Michael Crichton.

Famous faces

Rushdie is one of several authors to cancel his fall book tour. Ambrose’s book tumbled from the top of bestseller lists to No. 35 on Amazon’s list this week.

And Welch, who sold his memoir to Warner Books for a record $7.1 million, watched his publicity campaign, timed to coincide with an ill-fated national on-sale date of Sept. 11, evaporate.

Warner Books chief Lawrence Kirschbaum has said his company needs to sell 1 million copies of the Welch book to turn a profit. That could be hard to achieve after the cancellation of Welch’s appearances on the Fox News Channel, “The Tonight Show,” “Charlie Rose” and “The Don Imus Show,” as well as last Thursday’s Vanity Fair-sponsored party at the Four Seasons.

While “Jack” was the second bestselling title on Amazon Tuesday, sales at B&N were said to be 50% below projections last weekend.

An exec at a rival house said “Jack” could go down as one of the great publishing disasters — an idea Warner Books veep and executive editor Rick Wolff laughs off.

“I do believe when things get back to a sense of normalcy, the book will have a long and healthy life,” said Wolff. The house declined to make sales figures available, and plans to relaunch “Jack” next month.

Among books being rushed into the market are CNN producer Peter Bergen’s “Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden” from the Free Press and “God Bless America,” a collection of essays on the attacks to be crash published by Judith Regan at HarperCollins.

And now, Talk-Miramax’s $3 million, two-book deal with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in January seems like a sterling investment.

But submissions of new manuscripts are “very minimal” said Maria Campbell, who runs the scouting agency Maria Campbell Associates. “The majority of agents are pulling back, waiting and focusing on books that can somehow be relevant without in any way appearing exploitative,” she said.

Even agents following up on submissions made prior to last week have been hampered by the continued unreliability of Gotham phone service. And many are contemplating whether to attend the year’s biggest rights bazaar, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which unfolds in Germany in early October.

This caps a dismal year for Hollywood book agents, who’ve survived a recession in book option prices and a threatened work stoppage only to find their biz in a tailspin again last week.

“The idea of going to 15 people on a Friday night and expecting an offer on Monday morning just does not exist anymore in the book world,” said Sterling Lord Literistic agent Jody Hotchkiss, whose Greenwich Village office was shuttered last week. In the wake of last week’s attack, Hotchkiss said he’s stopped shopping all violent books — not just books on terrorism.

Trident Media Group head Robert Gottlieb said he, too, is steering his clients away from “the traditional bloody scenarios,” though he predicted fiction dealing with military action and international intrigue won’t vanish for long.

“After the Gulf War, the interest in techno-thrillers and geopolitical thrillers did not wane,” said Gottlieb. “The classical thriller which goes back to the ‘Day of the Jackal’ will continue to thrive.”

Penguin-Putnam, whose Hudson Street office is roughly 15 blocks from the World Trade Center, certainly hopes so. The house is hoping for delivery later this year of the next Tom Clancy novel, part of a two-book, $45 million investment in Clancy inked last September.

Clancy, one of the few fiction writers who might have dreamed up a scenario akin to last week’s attacks, was a fixture on the airwaves last week. His management company, AMG, confirmed Tuesday that his new book would be a Jack Ryan novel. It’s said to be a prequel, one that could eventually serve as a star vehicle for Ben Affleck.

But the terrorist attacks have left little appetite for at least one book that had the misfortune to come out last week: “Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds,” an account of a commuter airplane crash in 1995 that killed 10 people. The author, Doug Clegg, is going ahead with his book tour, but he may find his readings sparsely populated.

“We have 12 copies and none of them have sold,” says Kevin Sampsell, who works at Powell’s City of Books in Seattle.

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