‘Code’ breaks market’s sluggishness

Unknown author's tome took publishing world by storm

John Grisham, Michael Crichton and Stephen King could only watch with envy: “The Da Vinci Code,” a cerebral thriller by an unknown midlist author, sold with a velocity that left publishers’ heads spinning in 2003.

Dan Brown’s thriller, about a Harvard expert on religious symbols investigating the murder of a curator at the Louvre, was the bestselling adult work of fiction last year by a wide margin.

With nearly 5 million hardcover copies in print in the first week of December, 38 weeks after it came out, “Da Vinci Code” was still selling more than 100,000 copies a week. And Columbia Pictures was rapidly forging ahead with a bigscreen adaptation from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

“Da Vinci Code” was one of several blockbusters in 2003 that boosted a sluggish book market. The No. 1 book of the year was “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which sold 5 million copies in its first day on sale, June 21, on its way to sales of roughly 13 million.

Simon & Schuster shipped 1.8 million copies of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Living History” and 2.5 million copies of Dr. Phil McGraw’s “The Ultimate Weight Solution.”

But publishers don’t live off blockbusters alone, and the bigger story for the book trade in 2003 was not a happy one.

Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos called 2003 one of the toughest years on record.

In his year-end letter to colleagues, Random House CEO Peter Olsen complained of a troubled economy, compounded by heavy industrywide returns from 2002. “Any upturn in the book marketplace appears fragile,” he wrote.

Public tastes were tough to predict. The previous year, Ann Coulter’s “Treason” appeared to point to a vigorous market for conservative books. Random House and the Penguin Group launched conservative imprints. But in 2003, it was liberal books that sold especially well, led by the likes of Clinton, Al Franken and Michael Moore.

It was a year in which disgraced journalists found refuge in publishing contracts. Simon & Schuster published Stephen Glass’ novel, “The Fabulist”; New Millennium acquired Jayson Blair’s book, “Burning Down My Master’s House.” HarperCollins acquired books by Gerald Boyd and David Finkel.

A new wave of bite-your-boss fiction hit the market, led by Lorin Weisberger’s roman a clef about Vogue magazine, “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Woody Allen bit his agency, ICM, by floating a memoir proposal that he would not commit to write.

Meanwhile, according to publisher Judith Regan, “The pornification of the culture continues.” Perhaps to prove this, in spring, Regan will release porn star Jenna Jameson’s memoirs.

Regan warns that the publishing business is not connecting with younger readers. “My children, God love them, aren’t going to the bookstore,” she notes.

The out-of-the-box success of such blockbusters as “Da Vinci Code” had, however, reassured some publishers that they’re well equipped to capitalize when public demand is there.

“Readers want a fresh storytelling voice that they find entrancing,” Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum says. “One could put the success (of ‘Da Vinci Code’) in the same league as the Norah Jones’ ‘Blue Note’ album and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ” as evidence that word of mouth still matters.

“On any given week, with adroit publishing and unprecedented public support, you can win the reader sweepstakes.”

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