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Who said the book biz was on its last legs?

Publishing is slumping, yet there are opportunities

Publishing is mired in a sustained economic slump, book sales are flagging and Hollywood agents say it’s never been harder to sell literary fiction to studios.

But when a New Yorker fiction reading in San Francisco’s Mission District, sponsored by Banana Republic, can hold its own against the Game 6 of the World Series, it’s clear that these aren’t the worst of times for the written word.

Last Saturday, San Francisco’s Cafe du Nord was jammed with young patrons shelling out $15 to watch Will Ferrell, Tracey Ullman and Richard Kind read stories by George Saunders, Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith.

Weeks earlier, Dave Eggers began barnstorming his way across the country as part of the McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants tour – a literary Lollapalooza featuring McSweeney’s writers and a performance by rock group They Might Be Giants. A stop at George Washington U. drew a crowd of 1,300.

There are other reasons to be upbeat about the state of the fiction market.

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The National Book Awards nominations arrived last week. Among the fiction entries is Yale Law School student Adam Haslett’s first book, “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” one of the first debut story collections to hit the New York Times bestseller list since Melissa Bank’s “Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing.” Producer Barry Josephson has already optioned one of the stories.

The New Yorker last week named Deborah Treisman its new fiction editor, replacing Bill Buford, who has long been criticized for filling the magazine’s fiction pages with a boy’s club of familiar names.

Treisman plans to revive the New Yorker fiction debuts issue, which helped put young writers like David Shickler and Nell Freudenberger, ages 30 and 26, respectively, at the time of publication, on the map. (Shickler subsequently sold short stories to Scott Rudin and Robert Redford.)

The New Yorker may be the single most prominent platform for a new writer. But Treisman says there are more venues for unknown writers than ever before. “It’s certainly become trendier to be a writer than it used to be,” she says. “It no longer implies life-long penury and struggle in the way it did earlier in the century.”

Treisman says her goal at the New Yorker is the same as Buford’s — “to publish the best work out there.” But there’s speculation that she’ll introduce a heightened internationalism to the New Yorker.

This comes at a time when a new wave of Eastern European novels is generating keen interest in publishing circles. In the wake of 23-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestseller, “Everything Is Illuminated,” there’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” by Gary Shteyngart, “Nowhere Man” by Aleksandar Hemon, “The Winter Zoo” by John Beckman and “Prague” by Arthur Phillips.

“It’s good to be a novelist nowadays. Especially a young novelist,” the New York Observer reported last week in a front-page tribute to “young writers with an intellectual bent,” e.g., Foer, Eggers and Smith, who it likened to Eminem and Kurt Cobain.

“It’s the young literati who seem to have a direct channel into pop culture — and financial rewards,” the Observer noted.

Talk to publishers, however, and a slightly different picture emerges — of a business that’s slumping, whose financial rewards may have sharp limitations.

“It’s a tough market,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogards. “There’s been a prevailing assumption in publishing that we’re immune to downturns in the economy. Our experience in the last 18 months has demonstrated that we’re not immune to the market forces at work. A lot of publishers are feeling pinched.”

In a rebuff to the Observer, New York magazine writes this week that “Dave Eggers is no Eminem.” The magazine reported shabby sales figures for Eggers’ self-published second book, “You Shall Know Our Velocity” in New York indie bookstores. The St. Mark’s Bookstore has sold only sold 25% of its 1,000-copy stock.

Smith’s sophomore effort, “The Autograph Man,” also met with middling reviews and disappointing sales.

These writers have long received the celebrity treatment from publishers and the press. In an industry that loves beautiful, new faces, however, it’s not clear how long that will last.

It’s growing harder for old-timers to compete against newcomers, says Haslett’s agent, Ira Silverberg, now that book sales are computerized at the chains. Since advance orders are based on an author’s sales history, you’re likely to be penalized if your last book flopped.

“The industry supports more young writers because it can take more risks with them,” Silverberg says.

“The best laid hype doesn’t mean things are flying out of the stores “

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