NEW YORK — Just in time for an especially crowded fall, business seems to be picking up for books.
Or at least declining less.
"I feel most people are cautiously optimistic, now that we seemed to have turned a corner," says Simon & Schuster Inc. CEO Carolyn Reidy, who says the past two months have improved noticeably over a rough first half of 2009. "It's not that we're back to the extremely strong sales of more than a year ago, but we're trending upward. After taking our expectations down for so long, we're finally taking them up."
"Cautious optimism, that's the right phrase," says Jonathan Burnham, publisher of the Harper imprint of HarperCollins, which had an especially poor second quarter of 2009. "One never knows when we're completely out of the woods, but there's a sense of gradual upward progress."
The Association of American Publishers, which had been reporting declines for much of the year, finally had some good news last week, announcing a 21.5 percent sales increase for June. Barnes & Noble Inc., which has been hurt by online competition and discount stores, reported a 5 percent revenue drop for the three months ending Aug. 1, but expects a smaller decline in the fall.
After months when Stephenie Meyer appeared the only author anyone wanted to read, publishers and booksellers have noted new hits such as Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice," Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" and Pat Conroy's "South of Broad."
"We were down 20 percent this summer, which I used to think of as horrible. But we were down 35 percent in the spring," Barry Leibman, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, says. "It's a bumpy road, but I am having a little more sense of confidence."
"It's still quite a difficult marketplace ... but there's clearly a little bit more enthusiasm," John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, says. "In the first six months, you basically had just the Stephenie Meyer books and a few others working. Now what you're seeing is a broader spectrum working better."
If the fall is a bust, Sargent says, blame it on the economy. It would be hard to blame the industry for failing to offer anything to buy.
Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," his first novel since "The Da Vinci Code," is just the start. New fiction is due from Richard Powers, Alice Munro, E.L. Doctorow, Diane Gabaldon, Stephen King, John Grisham, Audrey Niffenegger, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore.
Other highlights: Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna," Ha Jin's "A Good Fall," Wally Lamb's "Wishing and Hoping," essay collections by Chinua Achebe and Zadie Smith, and a memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon. Novels are coming from Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and perennial Nobel candidate Philip Roth.
"I've had both Philip Roth and Orhan Pamuk described as possible sleepers, which gives you an idea of what the fall is like when those people are sleepers," Tom Nissley, senior books editor at Amazon.com, said.
The top nonfiction book is the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's "True Compass," the most anticipated work ever by or about a Kennedy, especially as the Massachusetts Democrat fought brain cancer. Kennedy, a key endorser of Barack Obama's presidency, will likely be featured in another major release: former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's "The Audacity to Win." Taylor Branch's "The Clinton Tapes" draws upon conversations between Branch and then-President Bill Clinton, although Nissley wonders whether, in the Age of Obama, there will be a lot of interest.
"I'm not sure if anybody cares about Bill Clinton right now," Nissley says. "It seems like not many people are talking about Bill Clinton's presidency right now or about him as a figure ... even though he's just been to (North) Korea."
The book's publisher, David Rosenthal of Simon & Schuster, responded: "He's certainly entitled to his opinion. But not only is Taylor Branch's book the most intimate portrait of Bill Clinton's presidency that we've had, but to say people have lost interest in Bill Clinton is likely saying no one cares about John Adams or Ben Franklin anymore."
Capt. Chesley Sullenberger reflects on his miraculous landing in the Hudson River in "Highest Duty," while Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory" looks into the death in Afghanistan of former football star Pat Tillman. Former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson gives his side on last fall's financial meltdown in "On the Brink."
Religious books include Elie Wiesel's "Rashi," about the biblical scholar of the Middle Ages; Bruce Wilkinson's "You Were Born for This," by the author of the million-selling "The Prayer of Jabez"; Robert Alter's translation of the Book of Psalms; and "Reading Jesus" by Mary Gordon. A leading atheist, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, takes on creationism in "The Greatest Show on Earth."
For younger readers, Jeff Kinney continues the travails of Greg Heffley in the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series and a sixth installment is coming from Scholastic's "39 Clues" adventure, this one written by Jude Watson. Maurice Sendak should be in high demand, and not for a new book, but because of the film version of "Where the Wild Things Are." Dave Eggers, who helped with the screenplay, also completed a novelization, in a fur-covered edition. Gregory Maguire of "Wicked" fame has written "Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation."
Jane Hannon, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., expects Suzanne Collins' "Catching Fire" to be a big seller. "Catching Fire" is the second in Collins' "Hunger Games" futuristic series, which imagines the United States divided into competing districts.
"One of the biggest things I like about her books is that they appeal to boys and to girls, and to sixth graders all the way up to high school," Hannon says. "There's an under-current of questioning authority in the second book that is really well done."
The rich and the famous again will be with us, bearing stories, told by themselves or channeled by others. Michael Feeney Callan's "Robert Redford" is an authorized biography of the actor-director-film patron. Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman" is an oral biography featuring interviews with Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins and the director, who died in 2006. Among other celebrity books are memoirs by tennis great Andre Agassi, actors Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron, David Letterman sideman Paul Shaffer and rock stars Steven Tyler and Clarence Clemons.
Ben Yagoda considers the whole genre in "Memoir: A History." Yagoda, whose previous books include biographies of Will Rogers and The New Yorker magazine, noted that reality star Kathy Griffin has a memoir out this fall, a blasphemous event in the early years of celebrity books.
"My impression is there have been more and more celebrity memoirs over the years and, along with that, a lowering of how substantial a celebrity you have to be," Yagoda said. "It used to be that you had to be someone like Charlie Chaplin, who was the greatest movie star of his time. Or a golfer like Bobby Jones. And now you have the D-list, like Kathy Griffin. And she's not even the least celebrated of the celebrity memoirists."
Thanks to the film "Julie & Julia," Julia Child is again the country's most popular cookbook writer and her longtime editor, Judith Jones, has a memoir out about her own love of food. A food book is coming out from another veteran editor and gourmet, Jason Epstein, who worked with Doctorow, Norman Mailer and many others.
Besides Kennedy's memoir, other notable books are by authors no longer around to discuss them.
An unpublished work by Michael Crichton, an unfinished novel by Vladimir Nabokov and unedited short stories by Raymond Carver are coming. Also, a reissue of Michael Jackson's memoir "Moonwalk" and a deluxe coffee-table edition about the late singer; short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut; authorized sequels to A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; the posthumous completion of a memoir by George Carlin and of a Robert Jordan novel, "The Gathering Storm," the first of a planned trilogy that will wrap up his "Wheel of Time" series.
"There's a certain reopening to the mystery of authorship and to a sense of under-standing of where the work came from and how it re-emerged after an author's death," says Burnham of Harper, which is publishing Crichton's "Pirate Latitudes" in November. "It's also an occasion to revisit an author's work when you thought that work was complete."