IT could have been a commercial.
That's what Steven Rubin, the president of Doubleday, thought when he looked around the beach at Key West earlier this summer. ``Everyone was reading something by John Grisham,'' recounts the ecstatic publisher of Mr. Grisham's bestsellers.
Ditto, for Michael Crichton.
Grisham-and-Crichton mania hit the United States this summer. Together, the prolific authors have seven of the top nine slots on the Publishers Weekly paperback bestseller chart for the week of Aug. 23, plus two books on the hardcover list. ``It's staggering, I don't think it's ever happened before,'' says Alice Martell, a New York literary agent.
The charts don't really reveal the scope of the craze. As of Aug. 16, including hardcover sales, Grisham had 30,195,690 books in print. Mr. Crichton's total, as of Aug. 9, was 23,524,000.
The two authors have more books in print than the total number of volumes on the shelves of the Library of Congress plus the public libraries of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles County, and San Diego. In fact, if all those libraries were stocked with Grisham and Crichton books, 11 million copies would still be left over, nearly enough to fill a second Library of Congress.
Syndicated columnist Dave Barry jokes that it is a new Federal Aviation Administration rule that all boarding passengers must have a Grisham novel in their hands.
Reading the unpublished galley proofs of Grisham's latest novel, ``The Client,'' Doubleday's Mr. Rubin recalls being accosted by a flight attendant. ``Where did you get that from?'' she demanded.
The books are picking up a lot of energy from the recently released movies ``Jurassic Park'' and ``Rising Sun,'' in Crichton's case, and ``The Firm,'' based on Grisham's book.
About a month before movie openings, the publishers reissue the books with a ``movie cover,'' such as a photo of Tom Cruise, the star of ``The Firm,'' and the line, ``Soon to be a major motion picture.''
``As the publicity is generated, we get people to read the book before the film comes out, and then they debate whether the book or film is better,'' says Matthew Shear, senior vice president of Ballantine Books, Crichton's publisher.
The success of the Grisham books is also due to savvy marketing, says Albert Greco, director of publishing studies at New York University. He says Dell (sister company to Doubleday and publisher of the Grisham paperbacks) sent copies of the galley proofs of ``The Firm'' to bookstores to let proprietors know the book was an ``easy read.''
``Once the word got out and the chain stores heard about the book and saw it was moving, they made it into a blockbuster,'' Mr. Greco says.
Both novelists are also known as excellent book promoters. Crichton has appeared on Good Morning America (ABC) twice in the last two years; Grisham has been on the Today Show (NBC) four times since 1991. USA Today even ran a Grisham interview of Grisham.
The two writers also have something else in common: money. Although the publishers will not disclose revenue, it is normal for authors to receive a royalty of 10 percent of the wholesale price of a book. On that basis, Crichton could have received $6.7 million while Grisham could have made $9 million just for the paperback sales. It's hard to estimate royalties in the paperback business, because unsold books can be returned to the publisher. Up to 40 percent of some books are returned. But both publishers say few of either author's books are coming back.
Grisham and Crichton have certainly pulled the money in from Hollywood. According to Publisher's Weekly, the movie rights to four Grisham books have sold for a total of more than $8 million. This includes $3.75 million that Universal Studios is paying for a book Grisham has yet to write. This topped the $3.5 million Warner Brothers paid Crichton for the movie rights to a book he has not yet written. He received a total of $3 million for ``Rising Sun'' and ``Jurassic Park.''
Is it good that all this money going to two men and two publishing houses?
Ms. Martell, the literary agent, is not so sure. ``There are some terrific books out there, but these guys are dominating the list,'' she says.
But Howard Kominsky, the chairman and president of the Hearst Book Group, says, ``Anything that excites people and gets them in the stores is good.''
According to the Department of Commerce, bookstore sales are up 7 percent for the first five months of the year. In addition, the two authors have created extra demand at the nation's libraries. The economic ripple goes further. ``Printers, people who sell paper, UPS [United Parcel Service], they are all profiting at a time when the economy is hardly exciting,'' Greco says.
Both authors are now acting like perpetual writing machines. Crichton is working on his next novel, called ``Disclosure,'' about sexual harassment in the workplace. Like some other Crichton books, it will be controversial: A woman harasses a man. It will be out next January. Grisham is also working on his next novel, due out in March.
As the new books come out, the publishers will begin to reissue this past summer's beach books with new covers promoting them as ``by the author of....'' The question is: What will we do with the other 53 million copies already out there?