At midcareer and middle age, Stephen King is a restless member of the magic circle of best-sellerati, the exclusive elite of commercial authors whose pricey prose can pay for a football team or pad a publishing house’s bottom line.
His latest novel of haunted love, “Bag of Bones” (Scribner), may occupy the prime real estate of best-seller lists and his new publishing partnership appears to be a blissful business marriage. But Mr. King is not entirely satisfied. He wants more.
Readers, that is. There are the lapsed female fans who, focus groups indicate, have tiptoed away from his brand of horror for tales like the “vampire lit” of Anne Rice that Mr. King dismisses as soft-core pornography. Then there are the up-market customers who have shunned him like “Carrie,” or the potential readers that know him only from plot twists in films and television movies.
“This is psychological,” explained Mr. King, whose quest for more readers gives him the zeal at times of a director of marketing. “I would like to sell. I wanted to have one more book that was big, that felt like I was running the tables in terms of sales. I wanted to knock Tom Clancy out of the No. 1 spot. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m king of the world, even if it’s only for two weeks, whatever. I wanted those things.”
At 51, with library shelves of best-selling books in his name and pen names, Mr. King is aggressively confronting the arc of his long career, a line that the writer character in “Bag of Bones” gratefully remarks is “longer for novelists because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts and thus have marginally longer memories.”
Today his newest title clings to the upper tiers of best-seller lists, but his opening sales do not compare with those for some of his megaselling rivals, or even some new authors seeking to enter that preserve. And while more than 20 of his books have climbed the New York Times best-seller lists, Mr. King’s newer titles spend less time there. In its crucial debut week in late September, “Bag of Bones,” for instance, sold in numbers at the Barnes & Noble chain that were a third of the opening sales for Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” (Putnam) or half of those for Robert Jordan’s “Path of Daggers,” (St. Martin’s Press) which nudged “Bag of Bones” out of No. 1.
Just a year ago, Mr. King parted with his newly merged publisher, Viking, and started a very awkward public search for a new literary home amid sniping in publishing circles that the author had passed his prime. / His sales, the critics felt, were too flat to justify / the almost $18 million advance he initially demanded for the “Bag of Bones” manuscript /.
Ultimately, the courting rituals with various publishers ended in a unique profit-sharing partnership with Simon & Schuster, a unit of Viacom, which paid him a $2 million advance against profits for each title in a three-book deal plus a share of the profits of more than 50 percent.
Since then, Mr. King has expanded that arrangement to include two more books and he speaks of his new publishing house like a satisfied groom -- one who is even more elated because he is rid of his first wife.
The lack of an enormous advance gives both sides more freedom, according to Mr. King. “You become a partner in how the book does and you’re not expecting somebody to take the fall if the book does badly,” he said. “The problem with the big advance today, particularly for a writer who has sold as well as I have in the past, is that it says to the publisher that ‘all I’m doing is taking out flop insurance.’”
So far, the author is so content with the partnership that he describes it as a “honeymoon cruise” with executives at his new imprint, Scribner, who “make me feel like I’m 35.” In contrast, he said, in his “marriage with Viking, I played the woman’s part.”
“I felt like the little housewife who stays home and works all day, while my husband is out taking all the credit and sporting around town in his nice tailored suit,” he said. “And I felt that I wasn’t being respected and I was being taken for granted.”
With the merger of Viking’s parent into the Penguin Putnam Group, Mr. King said he felt he was caught in a power struggle between top executives in the different companies. Putnam, he said, already had megaselling authors like Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell.
“Clancy sells more copies than I do and Phyllis Grann is their rabbi, simple as that,” he said, referring to Penguin Putnam’s president, who makes bit appearances in “Bag of Bones” as a doting publisher willing to help the novelist protagonist “with almost any concern.”
Ms. Grann declined to comment on the past negotiations. Several associates of Mr. King who know about those talks, though, said that the company did make serious efforts to keep him; one person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. King was nervous that the publishing house had become “Tom Clancy’s company and he had this incredible competition with Clancy.”
Now Mr. King and his new partner, Simon & Schuster, have settled on a strategy to try to increase his sales -- which had seemed to reach a plateau of less than 1.3 million copies -- by seeking lapsed readers through appeals promoting the writing quality in “Bag of Bones” or highlighting its romance elements.
Focus groups, a rarely used expensive research tool in the publishing industry, met for four nights to analyze the “Bag of Bones” manuscript and to discuss what makes readers run to buy Stephen King books or to bolt in the opposite direction.
“It was clear that a lot of people who had fallen away were women,” Mr. King said of the research results, which, he added, did not affect the book’s editing. “A lot of them felt that I was writing strictly horror stories and I knew that wasn’t true. And I’ve always been a little shy about saying, ‘Now, wait a minute, I’m a lot more than just a horror writer’ because it sounds so conceited.”
That became the task of Scribner’s publisher, Susan Moldow, who personally promoted the title among booksellers in places like Michigan and Alabama in the hopes that the book would reach new readers through positive word-of-mouth reviews from bookstore employees.
It was her view that many people knew Mr. King’s work through movies or television series, but, surprisingly, not through his own words. “The best way to address that is to get as many people as possible to read him,” she said.
So she sent personal notes to many of the people she knew in bookstores, pointing out that “any woman who has proved susceptible to the charms of ‘Rebecca’” would be intrigued by Mr. King’s “surprising update of Daphne du Maurier’s world of festering secrets.” The company’s executives worked with large discount chains like Wal-Mart Stores and Costco’s Price Club to develop special displays and a special collector’s edition of a Stephen King magazine. Viacom soffered billboard space to promote the book and TV commercials in its Blockbuster video stores.
With a bigger stake in the deal, Mr. King made more of a personal effort to promote the book, submitting to a rare publicity tour and the questions of late-night talk-show hosts and reporters -- a process that his novelist hero in “Bag of Bones” compares to being sushi at a sushi bar.
Though Mr. King does not say it himself, his longtime personal editor, Charles Verrill, said that the author considered his new novel one of the best of the more than 40 that he has written.
The book’s plot centers on a popular author who develops a severe
case of writer’s block following his wife’s death. After years of literary
drought, the writer retreats to his vacation home in Maine where he encounters
ghosts and romance with a young mother caught in a child-custody struggle with
her wealthy father-in-law.
“I think the fact that he loves this book had a great deal to do with the failure of negotiations. He finished the book as he turned 50,” Mr. Verrill said, referring to the negotiations with Penguin Putnam. “I think that psychologically he was offered a little bit less for a novel that he loved so dearly and, at this point in his career, it came as a kind of wound or blow. Money was the language. Money was the gesture and the gesture came as a blow.”
But expanding Mr. King’s base is in some ways a delicate task. By emphasizing romance elements, the publisher also risks turning off loyal readers who are drawn to Mr. King’s work for plots stressing horror and the supernatural.
Thus far the effort to reach new readers has had mixed results, though the publisher says that it has shipped out more than 1.55 million copies, an increase from the past.
Though the publisher was clearly trying to reach up-market customers, Mr. King’s new novel has actually showed the most growth in the large discount chains like Wal-Mart or the Dayton Hudson Corporation’s Target chain.
Still, the Borders bookstore chain, which draws an older, affluent base of customers, also reports that Mr. King’s sales have grown with this book. And Ms. Muldow said that sales are up in on-line bookstores, a sales outlet that did not exist 19 years ago when Mr. King had his first best seller, “The Dead Zone.” Sales, though, have remained average at mall stores, which draw younger, more impulsive buyers.
“My feeling is that it could sell better than anything I’ve done in years,” said Mr. King, who at times sounds very much like the protagonist in his new book. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years and there is an arc. It’s a lot slower for novelists than it is for comics and singers and I’m grateful for that.”
Correction: November 10, 1998, Tuesday An article in Business Day yesterday about Stephen King’s books referred incorrectly in some editions to the publisher of Robert Jordan’s “Path of Daggers,” which had higher opening sales at the Barnes & Noble chain than Mr. King’s “Bag of Bones.” The publisher is St. Martin’s Press, not Tor/Doherty.
Correction: November 16, 1998, Monday An article in Business Day last Monday about Stephen King’s books referred incorrectly in some editions to the publisher of Robert Jordan’s “Path of Daggers,” which had higher opening sales at the Barnes & Noble chain than Mr. King’s “Bag of Bones.” And a related correction in this space on Tuesday was published in error. The publisher of the Jordan book is Tor/Doherty. (St. Martin’s Press is the distributor.)