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Fall's bounty of books

Publishers are pushing out a crowd of star authors this season in a race to prop up sales.

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 2009

Dan Brown ('The Lost Symbol').

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Novelist Lisa See could be spending her September basking in the glow of three months on The New York Times bestseller list, but she has her eyes on another prize: keeping the competition at bay through Christmas.

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Ms. See is stepping up her phone interviews to book clubs and participating in more online chats about "Shanghai Girls," her well-reviewed novel about two Chinese sisters who leave for America in the 1930s. It's all part of her "grass-roots" mission to make sure her book "doesn't fall off into the abyss" during the biggest sales season of the year.

It will be hard work, but See has one solace: At least her book has been on store shelves for a while. "I'm so glad I don't have a book coming out right around Dan Brown," she says.

But plenty of other big names have new novels in competition with Mr. Brown's near-guaranteed blockbuster, another sequel to "The Da Vinci Code." And therein lies the rub about this year's fall season in books: It's chock-full of star authors, a bounty that could pull the publishing industry out of its doldrums or leave few winners and many losers.

In addition to Brown, well-known novelists with new books on store shelves this fall include the late Michael Crichton, E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Russo, and many more.

Add other complicating factors, such as the rise of books in electronic form and the desperate struggle of some booksellers, and the fall looks to be one humdinger of a season for publishers, stores, and authors, not to mention ordinary readers.

This fall has "a little more sense of urgency to it," says Arsen Kashkashian, inventory manager at Boulder Book Store in Colorado, expressing perhaps the most calm of anyone in the industry.

Literary agent Robert Gottlieb may be more representative when he puts it this way: "Fall has always been important, but never this important."

Particularly at stake, Mr. Gottlieb says, are the fates of publishing imprints and the struggling Borders chain of bookstores.

It has, after all, been a bad year for the book business, which has suffered from layoffs and cutbacks like other forms of media. "People said books were recession-proof, but that was only until there was a good-sized recession," says Mr. Kashkashian.

In the United States, book sales as a whole only fell by 1.5 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the Book Industry Study Group. But at bookstore chains, sales dipped by 10 percent or more in late 2008, and they continued to slump this year. Borders, for example, saw sales drop by 12 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

If fewer books are selling, why are so many big books coming out in the next three months? It appears that publishers simply want to try to salvage a bad year.

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