Publishers' Sweepstakes

More And More It Seems That Numbers, Not Words, are what people in publishing talk about when they talk about books. Not so long ago, the buzz in the book business centered on authors what had you heard about the new Cheever, the new Pynchon, this month's Joyce Carol Oates novel? This fall, by contrast, the talk turns most quickly to Nicholas Evans, a 45-year-old British screenwriter no one had ever heard of until late last year. That's when he sold his first novel, "The Horse Whisperer," for $6.15 million--$3.15 nail for the book, $3 nail for the movie rights, and both deals done before the book was even finished. Now his book is coming out, and while the $6 million man is the fall season's most-talked-about author, he's merely the first among equals. There's also David Ramus, a former art dealer and former heroin addict who earned $1 million for his first novel, "Thief of Light," about an art dealer and heroin addict in trouble with the Japanese mob. And David Baldacci, another first novelist, is also an instant millionaire with "The Executive Power," a political thriller. And then there's Bill Fitzhugh, who sold his novel, "Pest Control," to the movies for $1 million before it ever went out to bid among book publishers.

You don't need to be a publishing insider to know that paying $1 million to a writer who has never published a book is somewhere on the far side of silly. However, until this fall, when these top-dollar books actually land on bookstore shelves, people could only speculate about the true worth of these novels. So far the early warning signs aren't good. The best hint? Publishers themselves sound slightly aghast at what they've done. Lawrence Ashmead, Ramus's editor at HarperCollins, freely admits that the seven-figure sums thrown at first-time novelists these days are "outrageous." But he loved "Thief of Light," and besides, he says, chuckling, "it's easy to pay a million to someone who's written a good book and has no track record. If they have a track record and we see they sold 10,000 copies of their last book, you know not to pay so much." Mr. Ashmead, Lewis Carroll on line five.

The $1 million-advance syndrome is the latest example of an industry gone slightly bananas trying to satisfy the chain superstores that want blockbusters and the entertainment conglomerates that dream of synergy between books, movies and television. There's no longer time to groom an author through three or four novels, hoping that eventually he'll find an audience. Today's publishers are scrambling to strike it rich by signing up the next "Bridges of Madison County." Carole Baron, Evans's publisher, notes that "there were nine publishers--nine, count 'em!" bidding on "The Horse Whisperer" and several bid more than $2 million.

Baron, who eagerly defends the storytelling in "The Horse Whisperer," frets that the book's price tag diverts people from the novel's charms and prejudices reviewers (the book has already been panned twice in The New York Times). So what do we think of the fall's most ballyhooed book? The fact is, if people didn't have the money to talk about, "The Horse Whisperer" wouldn't be a topic of conversation at all. Neither very good nor very bad, Evans's novel is the woozily mystical tale of a maddened horse, a high-powered female magazine editor and a rancher with mysterious powers over both horses and high-powered female executives. You could put it down at any point without regret. Maybe the movie will be better.

These first-time novelists seem inevitably to be thinking about the screen version while still at work on their manuscripts. What's strongest is plot and dialogue; what's missing is the attention to language and ideas that would only have to be tossed out in the screenplay. And just as movies have grown more violent, so has much of pop fiction. Ramus's art-world thriller opens with a particularly gruesome scene in which an artist is murdered after having his ears cut off. Was Ramus thinking Vincent Van Gogh or "Reservoir Dogs"?

When it comes to crafting reliably good pop fiction, experience counts. So the fall looked promising with a new Michael Crichton novel on its way. Crichton is one pro who seems worth the big advances and movie sales: he turns out inventive, entertaining tales that are always laced with intriguing trivia about chaos theory or the business culture of the Japanese. At first glance, "The Lost World," a sequel to "Jurassic Park," sounded like a sure thing. Knopf, Crichton's publisher, certainly thought so when ordering a first printing of 2 million copies. Again, though, there's more story in the numbers than there is in the book, which is an unfortunate rehash of its predecessor. To be fair to Crichton, this is the first time he's repeated himself. Maybe he caught his case of sequelitis by hanging around Hollywood so much. But by the time two plucky children appear in the novel's plot--which again features scientists battling dinosaurs on a tropical island--you wonder if he didn't just decide to play it safe while he waited for the call from Spielberg.

Until now, Crichton has been the master of the synergy between books and movies. This fall, another successful writer is putting a new twist on the shotgun marriage of literature and the big screen. Nicholas Pileggi is publishing his nonfiction book about the mob in Las Vegas, "Casino," in October, and "Casino" the movie, with a script by Pileggiand Martin Scorsese (who directed), will open after. Pileggi and Scorsese have collaborated before, when they turned Pileggi's "Wiseguy" into "Goodfellas." But this time the book and the movie were done in tandem. According to Pileggi, he was researching his book when Scorsese suggested that they write the screenplay together and then Pileggi could finish the book while Scorsese shot the movie. Pileggi thought this was an excellent idea, because "it meant that I would be able to pick his brain-- his dramatic genius--in structuring his film as the structure for my book."

For "Casino" the book, the arrangement clearly didn't hurt. Pileggi's eye for detail and his ear for a telling phrase are as sharp as ever. Describing his protagonist, Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal, Pileggi writes, "He was a gambler's gambler, the man who set the odds, a perfectionist who had once astonished the kitchen help in the Stardust Hotel by insisting that every blueberry muffin had to have at least 10 blueberries in it." Of Las Vegas, a milieu that one might think had been written to death, Pileggi makes the fresh observation that it was "a city with no memory . . . where people went after the divorce, after the bankruptcy, after a short stint in the county jail. It was the final destination for those willing to drive halfway across America in search of the nation's only morality car wash."

Despite the much-hyped blockbusters that crowd the superstore displays, there are still good literary novelists published, and some--like Cormac McCarthy or E. Annie Proulx--become best-selling authors whose books get sold to Hollywood. This season will see several fine literary debuts for which publishers paid handsome if not insane sums. One is "Panama," Eric Zencey's elegantly written thriller about a 19th-century French scandal over the Panama Canal with the historian Henry Adams as an unlikely but charming detective. And some publishers still know how to keep faith with talented authors who've sold modestly in the past: Knopf plans to print 100,000 copies of Susanna Moore's fourth novel, "In the Cut," a stylish murder mystery, though it has enough sex and violence to make Bret Easton Ellis blanch.

The presence of Zencey and Moore on store shelves signals that quirky, original fiction can still get published. Novel lovers can also look forward this fall to new work from Umberto Eco, Ann Beattie and Amy Tan. Nonfiction fans can anticipate Norman Mailer on the young Picasso, Dinesh D'Souza on racism, Frederick Crews on Freud, and Gore Vidal on his favorite topic, himself. There's good stuff out there. You just have to hunt. Good authors and readers will always find each other, despite the noise and incessant cheerleading for the big-bucks books.