Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol': Why is the book biz so scared?

6a00d8341bf6c153ef011570de1436970c-800wiThere’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?

Comments (55 total) Add your comment
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  • Jeff W.

    Rather than be “scared” of Brown’s forthcoming book, perhaps others should write books that people want to read. Blaming a popular book for other books not selling is just silly. Also, new hardcover books are simply too expensive. Unless it’s a book that I’ve really been anticipating, there’s no way I’m dropping $30+ on a novel I’ll most likely read only once.

    • Marcus

      exactly.

    • carolann

      Jeff W., I could not agree more! Carol Ann

    • Helen

      you bet!

  • Jelana

    Stupid logic from the publishers. Whenever I’m reminded of how much I enjoy reading, I read more. And are there really people who won’t read a book if it doesn’t debut at #1?

    • cc

      Jelana I completely agree. If I read a fantastic book I just wanna find another one that is awesome and keep reading… its the crappy books that damagae sales. when I read a crap one I turn to a movie instead!

  • Melanie

    This whole thing is ridiculous! And frankly, with all of the different outlets there are to buy books – there’s no need to pay more than $10 -even for a hardcover.

  • Mark in FL

    The book industry is as intellectually bankrupt as Hollywood. It’s the same kind of bizarro logic that allows stupid reality stars to get a books published but if someone who is not related to someone famous (or knows someone already in the industry) writes a book, no matter how great it is, it won’t even get a look at from the industry. Speaking of which, does anyone know what these websites popping up all over the internet like this one http://itscoming2010.webs.com/ are about?

    • Sara

      You are dead on, Mark. I have been writing for years, even before you had to have an agent and now you can’t get either one-a publisher or an agent. They all say no multiple submissions, then add replys in 8-12 months. Don’t think they understand that due to the length of authors’ lives they cannot send to one publisher, wait 8 mos for a reply, then send to another, wait 8 more months, and so on. I would like to see my work published, naturally, but my heart aches for the really talented and brilliant authors that are passed on because they do not have a personal connection to the publishing house or agent. The publishing slots taken up by celebrities, politicians, headline makers, that could have gone to people of exceptional literary talent-what these people must be going through to keep getting rejected. A sad state of affairs, indeed, and what is the answer besides self-publishing, and there is no way to market your own book unless you are a millionaire already. And no, I do not know what the internet teaser is about, sorry.

  • Kathy

    I’ve read a couple of his books and I think he is over hyped anyway. There are a ton of other authors who write more interesting fare no matter where they rank on the list.

  • Meganne

    This is slightly ridiculous from a *real* reader’s standpoint. I complete about three-four books weekly, some that I get from the library and others that I buy in store. I pay some attention to best seller lists, but not too much. Any *real* reader doesn’t turn his/her nose up at something just because it hogs the bestsellers. Fffft…

    • Luddite

      Yep. It sounds totally snobby, but I’m right there with you. If I know someone who owns The Lost Symbol, I might read it, but it isn’t on my radar. I won’t buy it, and it won’t stop me from buying the books I would normally buy, as will be the case with other readers.

  • Dan JD

    Publishers should be more scared that consumers will continue to lap up tripe like Dan Brown’s work and Twilight and the market will be increasingly flooded with offal that people buy in droves, because actual good books are too hard to read. I mean, other books expect you to be smart and enjoy nuanced characters and good plotting and everything, rather than just flat out telling you how great and wonderful and brilliant the lead characters are.

    • millie

      Oh, please. People have ALWAYS purchased books for entertainment. The pop lit makes the money that supports the more literary stuff, and most readers like some of both, at different times. It’s the people who sniff at the idea of reading as something that’s actually FUN who endanger publishing, IMHO.

  • Luke Nye

    I’m personally only scared because people will again be talking about Dan Brown, and the history channel will again air all of their truth of the Da Vinci code shows. The bestseller list for me seems a list of do not reads, I’ve always found the books on the list to mostly drivel. It’d be great to see Dave Eggers, Jonathan Letham, or some similar author on the list, it’d mean that America has some idea what good literature is. Here’s a hint, it’s not written by Dan Brown.

    • Joe C

      i disagree. I’ve read every Dan Brown book and so far they have have been the most exciting books to read and hardest to put down. Maybe you should read his stuff before talking about him.

      • Joe C

        I’ve read tons of Asimov, alot of Orson Scott Card, and trying to add more Vonnegut to my collection, and i still think Dan Brown has written some of my favorite books.

  • Torsten Adair

    “Dan Brown fans are ruining bookselling!”

    When “Lost Symbol” was announced, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here is a title to boost store sales, which are horrible, two months before the Holiday shopping season.

    The primary goal of any retailer is to get the customer inside your store. Once they step through the door, the retailer can then entice that customer with all sorts of merchandise.

    What, does Random House have a monopoly on historical thrillers? Other publishers would be wise to ride the coattails, just as they did with the “while you’re waiting for Harry Potter” campaigns of a few years ago.

  • lisa

    i read da vinci after all the hype and although a decent read, i have no interest in Brown’s new book. i always prefer finding new authors or grabbing a book due to a title or reading that first page and wondering..the new books coming out will be fine

  • MsDaisy

    I’ll wait on the movie version starring Tom Hanks with bad hair.

    Seriously though, how many of those people buying this book or the Harry Potter books would actually be buying other books anyway. And I am thoroughly sick and tired of the political correctness of always appeasing the lowest common denominator. Instead of complaining when someone rises above the masses, strive to rise above yourself. Stop expecting the rest of the world to sink to your level.

  • catherine

    The thinking processes of publishers are a wonder to behold. Sales of other books will rise, not fall, because a popular book comes out. It draws people into the store. Other industries know this—it’s why stores sell one item for a particularly good price; it brings in customers, who will then buy other items. As for the argument that a whole lot of people will buy it online makes no sense whatever. Yes, that hurts sales in stores, but it’s true of every book that’s bought online, not just Dan Brown’s book.

  • Snarf

    This complaint sounds a lot like the recent bashing of the movie going public by movie critics for not listening to them (the NERVE) and making commercial success’ of both Transformers and GI Joe.
    Not only is it a ridiculouis form of snobbery, but critizing people for their tatse in any entertainment is not going to endear them to your point of view.

  • Suesilla

    Regarding the idea that there’s less impulse buying online than in bookstores. The opposite is true for this reader who buys literally hundreds of dollars of books, hard and trade, every year. I never get out of Costco without a book I never meant to buy when I went in and I rarely order fewer than two books on Amazon. Often three or more. Publishers need to realize that a book with a tempting cover and an engaging blurb on the back will sell no matter where it’s offered.

  • Diana

    The Brown book is only a “killer” in the sense that it is grabbing so much attention that is, frankly, better deserved elsewhere. (Check out Elizabeth Kostova’s forthcoming new novel: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5983057.The_Swan_Thieves) or the avant garde but brilliant new graphic memoir by David Small, Stitches: (http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780393068573).

    Many of us discovered the hard way that Brown is not really that good of a writer, certainly not in the literary sense. People who are going to buy his new book, and only his new book, probably weren’t going to buy Pat Conroy’s new book – or a reprint of Gravity’s Rainboy – anyway.

    • Diana

      Make that Gravity’s Rainbow…

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