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One-hit wonders bedevil lit biz

Writers stumble under pressure to re-create past successes

Fox’s upcoming “Devil Wears Prada” is based on Lauren Weisberger’s juicy tome about the world of fashion magazines. But don’t expect the author to feed the film pipeline again anytime soon.

Weisberger’s most recent book, “Everyone Worth Knowing,” was regarded by many as a flop. And industry buzz has her laboring over her third tome.

The book biz, which gathers this week in D.C. for the annual BookExpo America, is grappling with a scourge more insidious than Anthony Pellicano’s wiretaps: one-hit wonders. Hot first-time authors increasingly take long layoffs and then turn out a flop. The long list of phenoms gone sour includes former wunderkinder like Donna Tartt (“The Secret History”) and David Guterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars”).

Causes range from the vogue for memoirs to insatiable thirst for the next big thing and escalating expectations for sophomore titles.

Publishing has a long history of one-and-done. And Hollywood has loved its share of lit one-offs: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” are classic examples, along with movies based on scribes known primarily for one book. Those ranks include Boris Pasternak (“Dr. Zhivago”) Grace Metalious (“Peyton Place”) and Erich Segal (“Love Story”).

Like the music world, which has given us such short-lived acts as Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”), the Knack (“My Sharona”) and Right Said Fred (“I’m Too Sexy”), the book biz sometimes seems to revel in abandoning its own.

But flops by previously hot authors are more abundant than ever. And increasingly they reflect not the author’s decision to hang it up (as with Mitchell and Lee) but a furious and failed attempt to replicate success.

Some of the blame can be traced to the biz’s thirst for fresh fare. A publicity-hungry industry tends to court the next big story but then shies away from that story after it’s been told and it’s time for the next book to come out.

“With debut publishing there’s something fresh to sell to the media,” says Gotham lit agent Ira Silverberg.

But that same media hype can get so big that “maybe the pressure gets to some authors” for the next book, says HarperCollins editor Tim Duggan.

Oprah’s Book Club, perhaps the single greatest influence on book sales in history, has been a big part of the one-hit wonder industry.

For years the host would raise up an unknown from obscurity. Sales from authors such as Wally Lamb and Jacquelyn Mitchard would spike. But when their next efforts came out, Oprah Winfrey had moved on, and sales would quickly level off.

The exploding growth of memoir over the last decade is also partly culpable; when hit tomesare based on an author’s own experiences, writers are less likely to have a second good story in them.

“Nanny Diaries” authors Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, who based their hit book on their own experiences, departed St. Martin’s for a lot more money at Random House, where they were set to publish a corporate spoof called “Citizen Girl.” But the resulting manuscript was so bad Random cancelled the contract and the “Nanny Girls” wound up publishing elsewhere.

The Weinstein Co. began lensing “Nanny” last month, but we’re not likely to see the bigscreen version of “Citizen Girl” anytime soon.

This phenom isn’t limited to memoirs, either. John Berendt waited almost 12 years after his ’90s smash “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” before releasing his next book. It finally came out last year and has sold about 237,000 copies according to Nielsen BookScan (which is thought to account for about 70% of sales). That’s impressive, but a small fraction of the 2.5 million hardcover copies Berendt’s publisher said it sold over the book’s life.

The trend’s poster child is Charles Frazier. In 1997, a Civil War epic by the unknown first-timer came out of nowhere to sell millions and steal a National Book Award from Don DeLillo.

“Cold Mountain” was the publishing story of the decade, allowing Frazier to command a reported $8 million for his next book on the basis of a one-page outline. That was more than four years ago.

Frazier will finally try to avoid being a one-hit wonder when new book “Thirteen Moons” is released this fall. His publisher will flog the book heavily at the Expo in the hope of warding off the sophomore curse.

Even Dan Brown is struggling against evanescence. More than three years after “Da Vinci Code” began busting records, Brown’s publisher recently said his new novel won’t come out until 2007 — or later. The house points to the distractions of a court case and the requirements of research, but those may conceal a simpler reason: he has yet to write a satisfactory novel.

The growth of chain bookstores and their slick inventory systems have brought science to the art of book retailing. That means authors with a hot debut will command higher orders — and often unfair expectations — for their follow-up, even when reason suggest they shouldn’t.

It may be why books like Jonathan Harr’s long-awaited “Lost Painting” is considered an underperformer.

After waiting a decade since the publication of “A Civil Action,” the debut smash that became Paramount’s Travolta starrer in 1995, Harr finally released his new book last year. The title was said to draw huge interest from book chains but didn’t find an audience, selling just 79,000 copies since it came out, according to Nielsen BookScan.

More efficient retailing is part of a larger media transparency that also works against a second-timer. By pulling the veil off sales, tracking services like Nielsen BookScan have over the last few years actually turned a shallow track record into a virtue.

“Debut publishing has become the big scramble because publishers don’t have to work against history,” says Silverberg, referring to how publishers would rather start fresh than be measured against a concrete benchmark.

And toss money in as a factor: Rewards for a phenom’s unwritten second effort can now be so lavish that an author can get complacent. With so many millions in their pockets, John Berendt and Charles Frazier weren’t exactly Mailer cranking out “The Executioner’s Song” to make the alimony payments.

Still, there’s hope that the trend will quiet down. At the confab, a panel will offer the message that some publishers, and Hollywood companies like Netflix, have already learned: in the long run it’s smarter to sell a more diverse range of authors than be subject to the vacillations of a few hot newcomers. It’s that, or forever chase the new Nanny Girls.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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