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Bestselling authors disappoint...

23 December 2002

The American book market, which Jack Romanos of Simon and Schuster described as going through 'the most prolonged retail and bookselling slump of recent memory' has thrown up a few surprises in 2002. During the autumn selling season, many bestselling authors have suffered from dramatically lower sales. Stephen King's new book From a Buick 8 is 44% down in the first 11 weeks, compared to his previous book. Tom Clancy has dropped 38% on his latest book in the first 18 weeks.

But maybe this is just the usual ebb and flow of popularity? Michael Crichton is up 27% in the first two weeks' sales of Prey, compared to his last book, Timeline. John Grisham's new legal thriller is up 24% in 8 weeks compared to sales of his last book , which broke out of the genre, causing buyers to drift away.

It's too soon to tell, but a frisson of anxiety is affecting big American publishers as they contemplate the sales patterns of their 'bankers'

... but new novelists make their mark

In a nervous year there has still been a comforting number of first novelists published by these same big houses. Surprisingly perhaps, Random House, the largest American publisher and not known as a risk-taker, published 103 first fiction titles.

Some houses, such as St Martin's Press, take on many new writers, often those producing genre fiction, and manage to do this by printing small quantities and limiting their investment. But everyone loves the excitement of discovering new talent - and publishing it successfully. Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown, says: 'There's nothing publishers love more than first novels: opening up that box with a manuscript in it and discovering a new novelist.'

Sometimes publishing debut novels can pay dividends. No-one can underestimate the importance of new talent to replenish the stock of possibly past-their-prime bestselling authors. Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, has now sold 1.9 million copies. Readers still have a great deal of power and, in spite of the trend to see authors as a corporate investment, we can all be grateful that word of mouth continues to create those surprise bestsellers.