The economic slowdown has caught up with the book trade just in time for Christmas

JACK FORMAN, NARRATOR OF MICHAEL CRICHTON’S new technothriller, “Prey,” begins his story by telling us that his children are desperately sick, retching in separate bathrooms, victims of a bio-engineered plague unleashed from a Nevada laboratory.

Publishers, agents and scouts on both coasts may also feel like throwing up.

The nation’s economic slowdown has caught up with the book trade just in time for the vital Christmas selling season, and in recent months, sales of brand-name authors like Crichton have fallen 25% or more.

Publishers Weekly recently reported that first-week sales of Stephen King’s latest novel, “From a Buick 8″ at Barnes & Noble and two other book chains were 48% lower than first-week sales of his 2001 novel, “Dreamcatcher”; and first-week sales of Tom Clancy’s new novel, “Red Rabbit,” were down 32% from first-week sales of his last novel, 2000’s “The Bear and the Dragon.”

But Crichton’s publisher, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, is confident Crichton will buck the trend.

“Prey” burst into the global market Nov. 25, propelled by the largest publicity campaign HarperCollins will devote to any author this year. It also has the house’s largest first printing on record: more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone.

“It’s Michael’s first book in three years,” said Friedman, who worked with Crichton as an exec at Knopf for nearly three decades before decamping to HarperCollins in 1997. “He doesn’t write the same book over and over again. We couldn’t be happier that he is talking about science and technology. We’re reaching an additional audience beyond his devout fans.”

HARPERCOLLINS BET THE FARM on Crichton in 2001, paying $40 million to lure him away from his longstanding publisher, Knopf, for “Prey” and another, as yet undisclosed book.

As it turned out, it was an investment not just for HarperCollins, but for its News Corp. parent.

Last July, in consultation with Friedman, who describes herself as “the mistress of synergy,” Crichton permitted HarperCollins’ sister film studio Fox to preempt film rights to the novel for $5 million.

Friedman told Daily Variety that HarperCollins has an arm’s length relationship with the studio.

But it has already enlisted the Fox marketing department to help flog the novel, and there’s an ongoing promotion on the Web site of the New York Post, another News Corp. asset.

The NewsCorp. synergy helps create a level of wall-to-wall media coverage that’s rare in the book trade, however, it’s still unlikely to give birth to a Jurassic-size franchise of films, books, homevideos and product lines.

“Prey” revolves around the esoteric science of nanotechnology. However popular the novel, it’s hard to imagine nanoparticle toys for the kids, or a nanoparticle ride at a Florida theme park.

In fact, few books winging their way from New York to Hollywood this fall are corporate franchise material.

On the eve of a holiday film season that brings such book-based juggernauts as “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” Hollywood has thumbed its nose at trendy writers and made a rash of smaller deals for low-key books from unexpected sources.

Since late summer, much bruited fiction by Donna Tartt, Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides and Candace Bushnell failed to find studio buyers, while first novels “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Dirty Girls Club” sold to Wendy Finerman at Fox, and Laura Ziskin and Jennifer Lopez at Sony, respectively.

There’ve been a few exceptions, notably a $3 million deal for “Cold Mountain” author Charles Frazier’s next novel.

But these days, even book scouts aren’t certain — with the exception of forthcoming manuscripts from John Grisham and Tom Clancy — what will be the big books of early 2003.

This year will be remembered as a year in which a number of familiar authors fell flat on both coasts, as Alice Sebold’s offbeat literary novel, “The Lovely Bones,” pushed Tom Clancy from the top of bestseller lists.

That doesn’t bode well for a hasty publishing recovery. Publishers point out that in an economic downturn, a $25 hardcover is still considered a luxury item.

In a year that’s seen domestic box office rise 11% to date, a $10 movie ticket is clearly a bargain.

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