HOLLYWOOD — Putnam and biographer A. Scott Berg may have just achieved the land speed record for delivering a major bestseller to market.
On July 1, Berg put the finishing touches on his memoir of Katherine Hepburn, “Kate Remembered.”
On July 11, it shipped to bookstores in a first printing of half a million copies. One day prior to publication, it was already the third-fastest selling book on Amazon.com, ahead of “The Da Vinci Code” and the latest Oprah selection, “East of Eden.”
In reality, the book was one of the best-kept secrets in publishing — an industry in which there are few secrets.
Berg, who had been a friend of Hepburn’s since 1983, sold the book to Putnam in 1999, with the proviso that it not be published until the actress’ death.
The manuscript was largely finished in 2001, copyedited and typeset, and lay hidden in an editor’s bottom drawer for two years.
On June 29, Hepburn died at age 96.
The following Monday, says Putnam prexy Carole Baron, sales reps were on the phone with key accounts, laying the groundwork for the release campaign.
“Kate Remembered” isn’t the only big book to receive this sort of stealth treatment.
Publishers of bestselling, topical novels by the likes of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy are careful to keep them confidential prior to publication; sales and shipping personnel who handled the latest Harry Potter book signed affidavits promising to keep the book off the market prior to the pub date.
And several publishers are said to be quietly preparing biographies of Pope John Paul II to be published after his death.
But at a time when internal publishing information is digitally available to retail accounts, it’s hard to keep any book secret. And it’s all the more surprising considering how besotted the media has become with Hollywood: Airy celebrity gossip tends to get as much ink as a major international crisis.
“It’s exciting and a little strange,” Berg says. “Most books, it takes nine months from the time you turn it in until it reaches bookstores. You have almost a year to settle in and get ready for any publicity that might come its way.”
The greatest irony may be that Berg, who has received a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, usually spends 10 years writing his books. He’s currently writing a biography of Woodrow Wilson, scheduled for publication by Putnam in 2009.