Battle of the books
It's 16 days until The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's long-awaited follow up to The Da Vinci Code, hits shops around the world, but already the book has been in Amazon.co.uk's top 100 bestsellers for 124 days - ever since its publisher, Random House, announced with fanfare the launch date. With an initial print run of 6.5m, the largest in the company's history, it is obvious that there are high expectations for the book.
A new Brown book is a big event for everyone in the trade - after all, his last novel came out six years ago. Among both publishers and retailers there is a consensus that The Lost Symbol will be one of the biggest books of the year - "if not the biggest," according to Waterstone's fiction buying manager, Simon Birke. This is despite this year's list of fiction titles being "quite incredible, possibly unprecedented".
"Brown will dominate the charts for a while," adds Birke. "But authors such as Nick Hornby, Kate Mosse, Sebastian Faulks and Stephen King all have huge followings and I don't think they will sell any fewer copies this Christmas because of the release of The Lost Symbol." Certainly, the publishers are not ready to down tools. "If anything, it absolutely focuses the mind on being on top of every opportunity," says Kerr MacRae, the deputy MD of Headline, the publishing company, who agrees Brown will be the "biggest hardback" of 2009.
"Our analysis of [book sales data] shows that books like Dan Brown and Harry Potter sell in a certain way - there is a huge peak on publication, and then they drop down, and go back up again around Christmas. But there is this fallow period, and the challenge is to find that gap." Headline is resting its hopes of an autumn No1 on Martina Cole, whose past 15 books have sold 3m worldwide. Although this is a drop in the ocean compared to the 60.5m copies of The Da Vinci Code sold around the world, MacRae believes his is an achievable target, largely because of positioning it in "that gap". Cole's new book, Hard Girls, comes out in October roughly five weeks after Brown's. Although this is largely unchanged, MacRae admits the Headline team has "fiddled around slightly with the date, just to get it right." But does that hypothesis check out? The seventh and final Harry Potter book - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - was at the top of the charts for nine weeks, selling 2.7m copies over that period. But 1.8m of this was in its first day. Stephenie Meyer, the pretender to JK Rowling's crown, has seen New Moon retain the No1 spot for 29 weeks, despite selling a fraction (albeit healthy) of the amount - 600,000. The Da Vinci Code spent more than a year at the top of the mass-market fiction charts, but this came from steady growth over two years, rather than a day or two of frenzied buying. Of course, pre-launch anticipation is now at Harry Potter levels - but this will be the first big hardback launch for Brown.
The hypothesis also ignores the launch of other big names this autumn - Cecelia Ahern, Clive Cussler, Bernard Cornwell, Michael Connelly, Audrey Niffenegger, James Patterson, Stieg Larsson and Louis de Bernierès all have books out in the coming weeks. Probably the biggest competition will come from Terry Pratchett and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have books due out shortly before Cole's Hard Girls. Pratchett will be tough to beat, but Cole has had a good year, with a classy adaptation of The Take on Sky TV keeping her profile high. "We are just really chasing down people to make sure they know about her," says MacRae. "The extra frisson will be to knock Dan Brown off the top."
Penguin is playing it slightly safer, having pushed forward some of its titles to avoid direct competition with Brown. "There are only so many retail slots available every week or every fortnight, and every publisher thinks very hard about ensuring their key lead titles get the best they can," says Joanna Prior, the MD of Penguin General. Brown's launch has "compacted" this problem, she believes. "People want to get out of the way of him, so everything is coming in the first two weeks in September."
Although the autumn schedule was "fairly fixed" when the launch was announced in April, the group has brought some of its big-name titles - Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked (September 3), William Trevor's Love and Summer (August 17) and Dick Francis's Even Money (September 3) among them. "We knew from then [Brown] would get all the key slots, and would occupy the No1 position, probably for the rest of the year," she explains.
Penguin is also hoping for at least one of its novelists - Nick Hornby - to reach No1 this autumn. "Everybody has had to work hard to make sure campaigns were laid down, and we were well positioned with reviews, to get them noticed," she explains. "We had enough warning so it's been fine, we have been able to manage it, organise things and work around it. But it is a very rich autumn for fiction."
Nielsen BookData suggests there is a growth in fiction this year, particularly before "DB-day". Last year, two-thirds were brought out in the first two weeks of the month. This year, that number has risen to 71 per cent of the total. "The data hints that publishers have seen Dan Brown and altered publications slightly," says Philip Stone, charts editor at publishing trade magazine The Bookseller. Given the recession-induced belt-tightening, people are unlikely to splash out on more than one hardback this year. "Publishers are well aware of this," he says. "Dan Brown may steal sales off the books on their list." But the byproduct bottleneck could be just as damaging. "There's a huge risk that there will be lots of books stealing sales off each other. Christmas is an incredibly tough time for a book to get noticed, but it is also a time when millions and millions is spent. It's the crucial time for publishers and booksellers alike. If I was a publisher I would probably want to either have published very early on in September, to avoid the bottle-neck, or publish on the same day as Dan Brown, hoping that all other publishers have vacated that spot."
In fact, the pre-Brown bottleneck appears to be settling around September 3 - although October 1 has been tentatively heralded as this year's "Super Thursday" - the day with the most launches in the year. And while there are a handful of books being released in the days following September 15, none of the major hardback fiction is scheduled for the same day. However, Quirk Books, whose surprise hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is expected to sell more than 1m copies this year, is bringing out the follow-up on the same day.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is not coming out in hardback, which means it will not compete in the same charts, but it still has to compete for shelf space. However, Jason Rekulak, editorial director at Quirk, describes this as "smart counter-programming". He says: "Fans of Dan Brown are unlikely to be fans of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters after all. I don't know why so many publishers are running in the other direction - there are still going to be other spaces in the charts."
Not all publishers have run in the other direction, however. Quercus, the UK publisher of Stieg Larsson, is bringing out the third in the Millennium trilogy on October 1. Mark Smith, the chief executive, says the team is not changing "anything". "We've got everything we set out to get, in terms of retailer and media support. Fiction is very competitive at this time of year, and we're not banking on Larsson getting to No1 - we just want him to sell a lot of copies. Larsson is a long, slow burn - we don't really expect the book to go stratospheric and then fade away."
Even within Random House, Dan Brown's own publisher, schedules have not been altered much, spokespeople say. Reports that Sebastian Faulks' new novel A Week in December, to be released through Random House's imprint Hutchinson, had been moved forward by a year are also inaccurate. Emma Mitchell, Hutchinson's publicity director, says this was simply a matter of the author submitting his manuscript early. "We have certainly not moved it to avoid Dan Brown," she says.
There is a commonly held view within the trade that, even with the extra competition, Dan Brown is good for everyone - he encourages media interest, talk-show discussions and ultimately ups footfall into the shops. But this perceived wisdom is not necessarily backed up by facts. Nielsen BookData shows that the peak time for Da Vinci Code sales was one of the weakest for general fiction sales in recent years and vice versa. This of course is not an exact science - you can't say whether one causes the other. In any case, this isn't putting publishers off.
As MacRae says: "The amount of momentum it generates means there must be a halo effect. It puts a novel in the news - people are talking about the big media being a book rather than a film, and that can only help books generally."