As I did three months ago, I once again delved into Barnes & Noble’s quarterly conference call to get some insight into the latest book industry trends. Here are the highlights:CFO Joseph Lombardi is cautious but guardedly optimistic about sales in the all-important fourth quarter, saying that “the hardcover book business has improved” but there have been “some recent mixed retail sales reports.”Following a slow second quarter, the third quarter saw a turnaround in sales. CEO Steve Riggio said that the increase in sales began with Bob Dylan’s new CD, Modern Times.Diane Setterfield’s The 13th Tale was “one of the most successful new hardcovers… The wonderful ghostly tale was our number one bestseller the first day it went on sale, and the book went on to break all previous Barnes & Noble sales records for a first-time novelist. Almost 60 days after publication, the book is still one of our top-selling titles, due to its word-of-mouth appeal.”Fiction bestsellers for the quarter were Mitch Albom’s For One More Day, Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, Nicholas Sparks’ Dear John, David Baldacci’s The Collectors, and “rising fiction star” Vince Flynn’s Act of Treason.On the nonfiction side, the bestsellers were John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Richard Dawkin’s The God DelusionLooking at the fourth quarter, “Among the season’s best gift books, the standout is clearly Annie Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life, but Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook is off to a great start, as is the magnificent coffee table book called Rainforest.”In October, Barnes & Noble upped its discounts for shoppers who belong to its member program. The company expects this to help sales, but its inability to say just how the numbers might work out made investors nervous, the issue being that this plan could put a serious dent in the bookseller’s profit margin.Having said that, Barnes & Noble also noted that “margins continue to benefit from lower purchasing from book wholesalers, increased sales of our own publications, and an overall more efficient supply chain.” – i.e. those books published by Barnes & Noble are quite lucrative for the company.
Stephen King, once a favorite target of critics, has been embraced by at least some in the literary elite in recent years. He was awarded the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, and now he is the subject of an “Art of Fiction” interview in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, a distinction that might as well elevate him to canonical status.I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s books because they’re unflaggingly entertaining, but I also enjoy King’s work because of his close connection with his readers and his unwillingness to put himself on a pedestal. King’s exuberance can be found in his book On Writing. Part of the book is a common sense writing guide, but On Writing is worth a read for the funny little autobiography that the guide is paired with. He casts aside the notion of the writer as tortured soul and replaces it with the idea of the writer as a showman, serving his audience.What interests me, though, is how King has graduated from the bestseller list and moved into literary limbo. In the Paris Review interview, King talks about writers like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. While King has some kind words for Grisham, he recognizes that he’s not really in competition with these perennial bestselling scribes any more, nor does his ego need the lavish advances that they receive. At the same time, he is reluctant to embrace the literary elite, because, I think, he believes that doing so would break his contract with his readers. Now, though, he seems less orthodox on this point. It’s not that he is embracing the literary world, far from it. It’s more like, coming back from an accident that nearly killed him – he was struck by a van near his home in 1999 – he has turned inward, and is writing mostly for himself, having previously done it for fame, money, and his love of entertaining. Of his forthcoming book, Lisey’s Story, which PW calls “a disturbing and sorrowful love story,” King tells the Paris Review:To me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don’t want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I’ve ever written where I don’t want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn’t stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.The interview ends with King wondering aloud if he can “do something that’s even better.”Links on King: Only a small snippet of the King interview is available online, but, if you’re interested in King, it’s worth picking up this issue of the Paris Review to read the whole thing; King’s National Book Award speech; King’s account of his accident from the New Yorker.