Blockbusters booked

Weighty summer books heat up sagging pub biz

Book publishers have answered Hollywood’s noisy summer of franchises, sequels and kiddie pics with their own blockbuster summer.

But most of the literary blockbusters lately have been big, eye-straining nonfiction works: Hillary Clinton’s 576-page White House memoir, Walter Isaacson’s 448-page biography of Benjamin Franklin, Pulitzer Prize-winner A. Scott Berg’s 384-page memoir of actress Katharine Hepburn.

These “event” books, launched like tentpole movies into a crowded book market in hype-driven, one-day sales frenzies, are beginning to restore some optimism to an industry after a slack first quarter and months of sluggish sales.

According to figures released Tuesday by Nielsen BookScan, Clinton’s “Living History” topped nonfiction sales for the week with 55,330 sold (and sales to date of 835,864) in retail outlets reporting to BookScan, a number that’s estimated to represent roughly 70% of the market.

‘Kate’ second

Following “Living History” was Berg’s “Kate Remembered” with 44,377 sales for the week, “Benjamin Franklin” with 42,945 and Ann Coulter’s “Treason,” with 37,533.

Leading all categories was “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which sold 272,765 copies for the week at retailers reporting to BookScan.

“Random House had a terrific June, and we’re having an excellent July in the sell-through of our titles,” said Stuart Applebaum, spokesman for Random House, which publishes “Treason.”

“Publishers are having a relatively better summer than our friends at the movie studios in terms of cash registers ringing up sales of our big titles,” Applebaum added. “There are those in our world who are suggesting that viewer disappointment in summer movies is fueling book sales.”

Worries prevail

But the competitive book market, with its surprising glut of nonfiction blockbusters, hasn’t quelled anxiety among agents, publishers and booksellers that consumer spending on books will rebound for all titles.

Constance Sayre, director and owner of Market Partners International, a book publishing consulting firm, noted that lead bestsellers sell at steep discounts. The challenge, she said, was to create incentives for customers visiting bookstores to buy one title — be it “Harry Potter” or “Living History.”

One such gambit, at Borders Books & Music, gave customers a 10% discount on another book.

“Everybody who is willing to say it is very nervous about the state of the business,” Sayre said.

One risk in “event” publishing – as with “event” movies — is that book sales of some lead titles have fallen off sharply after the first week on sale.

Two weeks ago, Harry Potter sold 520,126 copies at retailers reporting to BookScan. The week before that, it sold more than 2 million copies. Scholastic reports that it has printed 9.5 million copies of the book, with the first 5 million selling in the first 24 hours.

Blame the cluttered market, or the increasingly short shelf life of all media phenomena, but such sharp revenue declines from week to week could be as nettlesome for publishing balance sheets as they are for studio accountants.

Sales of other titles have bucked this trend. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is back on the top of the New York Times bestseller list after 17 weeks on the list, with 62,602 copies sold for the week, according to BookScan.

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