August is a slow and languorous month for publishing. Employees go on vacation, new books are released in a trickle and most companies in New York close at lunchtime every Friday so the editors can head for the Hamptons.
But this is the calm before the storm, because publishers are actually resting up for the big fall season. Autumn for publishing is like summer is for Hollywood: It is the time when many of the year's splashiest titles are released, bookstores are full of customers and everyone in the industry hopes to find a hit that will carry through until Christmas.The months between September and December are always crowded with new books by big authors, and this year, booksellers and publishers say, the season looks to be particularly full.
The rush has already started with Tom Clancy, whose latest book, "Debt of Honor," has been shipped by its publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons. The enormous first printing of 2 million copies is already hitting the stores.
The next two months will bring nonfiction books from Deborah Tannen, Pope John Paul II, James Herriott, the team of James Carville and Mary Matalin, William H. Gates and Tim Allen, the star of the top-rated sitcom "Home Improvement," as well as autobiographies by Barbara Bush, Dolly Parton and Marlon Brando.
New novels are on the way from Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell and Sidney Sheldon, among others. Other books that booksellers are particularly excited about are Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns's "Baseball: An Illustrated History" (a tie-in to Burns's gargantuan series beginning next month on PBS); "The Hot Zone," the true story of a lethal illness from the rain forest that finds its way to a Washington laboratory, by Richard Preston; "From the Fields of Gold," the latest book from Alexandra Ripley, the author of the critically panned but wild-selling sequel to "Gone With the Wind;" and "The Lottery Winner," a collection of short stories by Mary Higgins Clark.
All this makes booksellers very happy. But it can make publishers nervous because the competition for sales - and for a spot on a best-seller list - is so intense. "This is the heaviest fall season I can remember in a long time," said David Rosenthal, an executive editor of the adult trade group at Random House. "It's like a crackup on the Long Island Expressway and it's backed up for miles and everyone's struggling to get their books past the traffic jam and into the stores."
The idea, say many publishers, is to establish a book early enough that it will gather the strength to coast into Christmas - but not so early that it gets lost in the shuffle and fizzles out by November, or so late that the booksellers ignore it in the post-Thanksgiving retail frenzy.
"It's an extraordinarily important time for us," said Paul Gottlieb, president and publisher of Harry N. Abrams, who estimated that his company, which specializes in art books, does about two-thirds of its business between the end of August and the end of December. "By and large you try to break out a new book sometime after Labor Day, when you start building publicity and promotion for it that will carry it through Christmas."
With so many books rushing out at once, one of the trickiest calculations for a publisher is figuring exactly when to release the new titles so that they draw the maximum publicity and shelf space. In this way, publishing is different from the movie business, where there is a much smaller number of properties and companies can more easily schedule openings so that films don't crowd into each other.
Publishers try to bring out their biggest titles when their competitors are quiet - but it's not always clear when that is.
"You want to choose a week when you think it's going to be uncluttered," said William Schwalbe, the editorial director for William Morrow & Co. And Carolyn K. Reidy, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, said, "You try to make sure that your book does not land the same day as someone who is guaranteed to be corralling all the book buyers that day." Publishers also compete in the fall for publicity and for review space in magazines and newspapers.
The problem of too many books flooding the stores can be compounded when one company releases a number of books simultaneously, straining its own resources and lavishing attention on some authors at the expense of others.
"It's like if a mother St. Bernard has a lot of puppies, there's always a few that aren't going to make it," one editor said. This is a common pitfall, according to a number of publishers who are leery of depending too heavily on the fall season.
"You don't want to put too much of your ammunition into one load," said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, the president of Warner Books. "The danger for authors is not from the competition, it's from within their own houses. For instance, you have a publicity department with a certain amount of capacity and you have to be careful that you don't have 14 authors out at once so that you're tripping over yourself."
Another concern, particularly for authors, is the heightened competition for spots on the best-seller list. Many authors who have books coming out this fall are used to being high on the list. But because best-seller lists reflect relative sales each week, a book that would make the list in a less busy time might not do so in the fall.
"Sometimes the decision about when to publish depends on whether the position on the list is more important than sales," said Phyllis Grann, president and publisher of the Putnam Berkley Group. "Unless books are extraordinarily similar, I don't find that two books shipping a lot of copies at once cannibalize each other. But they can cannibalize the positions on the list."
Like Grann, Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Doubleday, said he preferred to space books out throughout the year rather than release most of his major titles in the fall. He expects one of his best-selling titles this year, John Grisham's "The Chamber," to continue selling steadily into Christmas. "Automatically publishing all the big books in the fall is an outdated notion," he said. "Many publishers shoot themselves in the foot by over-publishing."
Even so, most booksellers have already completed their early orders for fall, raising publishers' hopes for a lucrative season. Of course, getting the books into stores is only part of the battle. No one has any way of knowing how many people will actually buy the books, and any unsold copies will just be shipped back to the publisher.
"They're not all going to be blockbusters, but there's such a wide range of books that it's going to be good business for us," said Christopher Avena, a hardcover buyer at Bookazine, a book wholesaler. He thought back to last year, when the big book for the fall was Howard Stern's salty memoir, "Pri-vate Parts."
His prediction this time around? "The pope could do it this year," Avena said. "It should be the publishing phenomenon of the fall."