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POWELL'S `JOURNEY' TAKES HIM TO PEAK OF PUBLISHING

Out just a week, Colin Powell's autobiography is turning into a publishing phenomenon. The general-turned-author promises to outsell Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, Larry Bird and even Powell's fellow military hero, Norman Schwarzkopf.

The book's enormous initial success caught the attention of a potential rival for the presidency. Sen. Bob Dole, addressing the Concerned Women for America conference, quipped, "I haven't seen this many people since I went to the Powell book signing yesterday."In Milwaukee, hundreds of people lined up Friday in the blustery cold to get an autographed copy. James Beier, 34, first in line, arrived at 4:30 a.m.

"I'm flattered," said Powell when he saw the turnout. In 21/2 hours, he signed 1,902 copies.

"We have never in our 25-year history seen anything like the first-day sales of this book," said Nancy Higgins, marketing director for the Library Limited in suburban St. Louis, the largest nonchain book store in America.

"We sold 1,302 copies in a week," she added. "You can't compare fiction and nonfiction, but when John Grisham's novel, `The Rainmaker' came out we sold 75 copies - and that was a good first day."

"My American Journey" is the fastest-selling book in Random House history. The publisher, which reportedly paid Powell an advance of $6 million or more, initially planned to print 500,000 copies. That was bumped up to 950,000 in light of advance interest. Now 1.25 million copies are in print. Editions in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Chinese are planned.

"This book went to the top of every best-seller list immediately on the basis of only two days of sales," said Random House spokesman Carol Schneider. "It landed in the stores on Friday and the lists are tabulated on sales from Sunday through Saturday."

She said the presses are kept going 24 hours a day. Extra paper was ordered to forestall any delaying glitches.

At 1,000-store Waldenbooks, demand exceeded projections by 50 percent. "From the moment I found out this book was going to be happening, I had it pegged as one of the biggest nonfiction books of the year, and that's what's happening," says buyer Robert Fields.

The book, launched in a bath of publicity, tells the story of a son of hard-working black immigrants from Jamaica who grew up in the South Bronx and became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and a potential presidential candidate.

"It's a great American success story and Hollywood couldn't have scripted it better," said a reviewer, Ronald Steel, in The New York Times.