There’s been much fulminating in the books world lately that The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, is bad for publishing. This week, former Publisher’s Weekly editor Sara Nelson even dubbed Brown a “Book Killer.” The theory is that Brown’s readers will only troop into stores (or go online) starting Sept. 15 to buy Symbol, probably at a deep discount, and they won’t buy anything else. Worse, the critics argue, the hubbub surrounding Symbol will drown out media coverage of other books — and eat into sales of those books too. So publishers have supposedly been shuffling the release dates of various titles so they don’t have to go head-to-head with the Dan Brown juggernaut.
It doesn’t take a Harvard symbologist to see that this is mostly sour grapes and a whole lot of hooey. It reminds me of the stink that publishers raised over the Harry Potter series, successfully persuading The New York Times and other outlets to demote the titles from their adult best-seller lists so that J.K. Rowling titles wouldn’t hog up so many slots. Why do we have to compete with a book that appeals to a youth-skewing mass audience, beyond the usual Starbucks-sipping B&N crowd?, the publishers asked. That just isn’t fair! (Imagine if the movie studios tried something similar so they wouldn’t have to compete with the box office returns of G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra.)
Yes, The Lost Symbol will probably debut at No. 1 — and stay there for a good long time. If you’re James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell or Mitch Albom and accustomed to having your new novel debut at No. 1, you may be out of luck unless you launch your book after the Brown machine has died down a bit. (How long that will take is anybody’s guess at this point.) But for every other book coming out this fall, there will literally be no difference. None. There will be one more hit title in the marketplace, that’s all. And it will be a mass-market title whose audience will include many, shall we say, non-habitual book shoppers. The crossover with Jon Krakauer or Jonathan Lethem or Pat Conroy, some of the authors alleged to be “hurt” by Brown, seems infinitesimally small. (I’d love to see the Venn diagram of the overlap in readership, actually.)
Brown’s mass audience may lead to some more media coverage — but this isn’t media attention that would otherwise go to James Ellroy or Margaret Atwood or Nick Hornby, worthy though those authors (and their new novels) may be. Those books will get precisely as much (or as little) ink as they would have gotten without Dan Brown in the picture. At this point, Dan Brown (like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer before him) is competing for media attention not with other authors, but with other mass-culture phenomena — Octomom or the new season of The Bachelor or whatever Jon and Kate are doing that week. Aside from the obligatory review, I suspect most of the print stories on Symbol won’t even be on the ever-dwindling books pages of newspapers.
But will The Lost Symbol‘s popularity rub off on other books too? Publishers fret that Dan Brown fans will just buy Symbol — and that the increased foot traffic in bookstores won’t nudge sales of other titles. The worriers add that the rise in online book sales — perhaps as much as 40 percent of the market, if these figures are accurate — makes impulse shopping of additional titles even less likely. The online book-buying trend is nothing new, though, and it’s hard to see how a sudden swell of motivated book consumers is a bad thing. Even if only 5 percent of Symbol buyers pick up another book, isn’t that a good thing? (No wonder book publishers are in such dire straits. They even panic at the prospect of a big hit!) But let me ask you: Do you plan to buy Dan Brown’s novel? What are the chances that you might pick up another book (or two) to fill up the nightstand while you’re at it?