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Dan Brown frenzy in September

31 August 2009

You can't have missed the news that Dan Brown's latest thriller, The Lost Symbol, will be released worldwide on 15 September. As readers queue up to place advance orders for one of the most eagerly anticipated books in history, there are also anxieties about how this one book will distort the performance of the book trade.

The excitement is easy to understand. The Da Vinci Code sold 80 million copies worldwide, 11.7 million of them in the UK. Leaving no stone unturned, his publishers will be mounting a huge publicity campaign just before publication.

No-one knows the subject of this book, which is being kept under tight security, with no review copies sent out in advance. On his website, Brown says the novel, based on five years of research, is 'set deep within the oldest fraternity in history... the enigmatic brotherhood of the Masons' and will explore 'the hidden history of our nation's capital'.

A film of The Lost Symbol will surely follow and once again it is likely to star Tom Hanks as the symbologist Robert Langdon, and to be a heart-stopping thriller of action and suspense.

While the book trade celebrates the arrival of the kind of a really blockbusting book which will attract a mass audience, there's no doubt that a very large proportion of the sales will come through supermarkets and the Internet, with the book likely to be heavily discounted. It will provide a fillip to the trade, but the discounts may mean that the book may not make much money for bookshops.

And how much will Brown's megaseller affect the sales of other fiction? There are mixed views about this, and some publishers, whilst not admitting any anxiety, have quietly rescheduled big books in their own autumn publishing programmes to avoid 15 September.

The Bookseller has shown that the effect of the Dan Brown phenomenon on other fiction sales is difficult to pin down. The figures appear to suggest that a big blockbuster like this really does affect sales of other fiction titles. Until, that is, you get to last year, when fiction sales fell 1.3%, instead of rising, in spite of the fact that Dan Brown sales, with no new book for five years, were a low 0.1% of the market. It looks as if the recession was an even stronger factor.

It's widely thought that Dan Brown achieves such huge sales because his books reach people who are not normally regular readers or book purchasers. This is difficult to prove, but the numbers sold suggest that Brown's books do reach outside the normal book market. So whatever the effect on other books, perhaps we should just hope that the beleagured book trade does get the hoped-for sales bonanza to counteract the continuing gloom in the book trade.