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Making book: from stage to the page

NEW YORK – While Christopher Durang may never battle John Grisham for the top spot on the bestseller lists, he and other contemporary playwrights can take heart that their works are becoming more available for mass audiences to read.

Plays, anthologies and theater-related books have become mainstays for many small, specialty publishers and have even garnered attention from some of the major houses as well.

Plays on the page certainly can’t compete with plays on the stage, but a small coterie of publishers – Glenn Young’s Applause Books, Faber, Vintage, Grove/Atlantic, Smith & Kraus and TCG – have found steady, if not exactly Grisham-like, sales and greater cultural cachet in the niche.

More than a few publishing types took notice when both parts of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” flew beyond the 200,000 mark in units sold. And last month, the Chicago Tribune became the first major U.S. newspaper to begin reviewing plays in its book review section.

In June, Rob Weisbach Books, a new William Morrow imprint, will publish an oversize hardcover about “Rent” that will include the musical’s entire libretto.

Certainly no one is heralding the arrival of a new publishing craze, but the notion of drama as printed literature clearly is making some inroads in the book biz.

Consider TCG, the better-known acronym for Theatre Communications Group. The company, a national group founded by the Ford Foundation in 1961 as an advocate for nonprofit theaters, began publishing plays in 1988 with Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.” At the time, only one other play by the playwright was in consumer print – and that was one more than, for example, Stephen Sondheim.

TCG and other specialized publishers such as New Hampshire-based Smith & Kraus grasped that while manuscripts were available to actors and theater professionals through “working title” publishers such as Samuel French and the Dramatists Play Service, even the most popular of contemporary playwrights were all but ignored by the consumer publishing industry.

“We thought it was amazing that people who had been on the theater scene for years were unavailable to the general public,” said Terence Nemeth, TCG’s publications director. “Readers never got a chance to see their full body of work.”

Eight years later, TCG is prepping Fugard’s 10th title, and has published more than 85 works from such playwrights as Eric Bogosian and Nicky Silver. The house has published half a dozen Sondheim volumes.

TCG’s greatest success came with Kushner’s epic. Nemeth said that the first and second installments have sold more than 200,000 copies to date – a remarkable figure given the industry average of 3,000 to 5,000 first-printing copies of a play or anthology.

TCG isn’t alone. Last year, the Dramatists Play Service, which for 60 years has been a direct-order company for theater professionals and schools, began offering a full trade discount to bookstores, including the Barnes & Noble chain. While Dramatists does not publish special trade editions with slick cover art, a Dramatists spokesman said bookstore purchases now account for more than half the company’s total sales.

Still, emerging playwrights should not start bankrolling new homes on hoped-for publishing royalties just yet. Doug Wright, who wrote the Obie-winning play “Quills” – which has been optioned for film by Fox Searchlight – has yet to see his play made available as a trade book in mainstream bookstores. But this could change as the Dramatists Play Service, which publishes the actor’s edition of “Quills,” moves closer to the mainstream market.

And while play publishers say sales have increased in recent years due to the establishment of drama sections in the retail superstores, the availability (and demand) varies greatly from market to market.

Peg Duthie, the drama buyer for the Borders bookstore chain, said, “In the past, 75% of what we carried was Shakespeare and 25% everything else.” That ratio is narrowing – in some places.

“It really depends on the store and market,” Duthie said. “We are trying to keep a closer eye on what both Broadway and regional theaters are doing. In fact, several stores have linked themselves with local theaters, or are upgrading their sections due to customer interest.”

Even without a breakout success like “Angels,” specialty publishers find that plays “backlist well,” selling consistently if not spectacularly.

Vintage executive editor Luann Walther said sales of plays at her house average about 10,000 copies per book, with some notable exceptions: Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” has sold about 40,000 copies, David Mamet’s “Oleanna” more than 45,000, and Spalding Gray’s “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” more than 70,000.

Tempering the notion that play publishing is a boomlet about to boom, Walther said that when she considers a play submission, she asks: “Is it something that people studying acting will be reading five years from now?”

Applause publisher Glenn Young says published plays serve a cultural need as well. “While these playwrights will never get rich from these books – and as the pull from Hollywood becomes stronger – these books become the only fingerprints to their original visions.”

Adam Davidson, a freelance dramaturg who reviewed the first batch of newly published books Nov. 3 for the Chicago Tribune’s book section (including “Trevor Griffiths: Plays 1,” Fugard’s “Valley Song” and E.L. Doctorow’s “Drinks Before Dinner”), said plays should be regarded as more than mere actors’ tools.

“My argument to the Tribune,” he said, “was that plays, even if they were never performed on a stage, stand beside poetry and fiction as fascinating words on the printed page that move and inspire a reader.”

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