"It is a spectacular fall," says Carole Horne, general manager of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. "One of the best that I've seen."
By "spectacular," Ms. Horne isn't referring to the weather. Nor does she mean a potential bumper crop of apples or incoming college students. Horne is gushing about the autumn's harvest of fresh books, and her basket of picks brims with Claptons, Clintons, Colberts, and Clarkes, to name the ripest ones.
With the back-to-school, hit-the-books season in mind, we asked publishing and bookselling insiders which September, October, and November releases are attracting the biggest buzz. The fall list should satisfy all tastes, from old favorites to new kids on the block.
For fiction, Horne reels off some heavy-hitters: Denis Johnson, Alan Lightman, Ann Patchett, Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, Junot Díaz, and Philip Roth, all with new novels. "Anytime you have a new Philip Roth," she says of Exit Ghost, "it's an event."
But at the top of her must-read pile sits Richard Russo, whose Bridge of Sighs comes at the end of September. "I thought 'Empire Falls' was the peak of his career," says the 33-year bookselling veteran, of Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. "But this is as good, if not better." Like his other works, "Bridge of Sighs" chronicles the dramas of ordinary folk – this time Lou C. Lynch, a 60-year resident of a small town in upstate New York.
An up-and-coming novelist attracting the most attention is Brock Clarke, for his just-released literary mystery, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. "It's a really interesting oddball novel," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of industry bible Publishers Weekly, "about an oddball guy who might accidentally be burning down houses."
Danielle Marshall, marketing and promotions specialist for Portland, Oregon's, Powell's Books and powells.com, raves even more emphatically. "[Clarke's] being compared to Richard Ford," she says. "People are using big words: tour de force; an instant classic."
In the mystery-thriller category, Ms. Marshall says Chelsea Cain's Heartsick stands out – and not only because it arrived on her desk in an evidence bag covered with faux blood. The plot involves a detective who asks an imprisoned serial killer to help solve a spate of murders. Sounds like "Silence of the Lambs," but with a twist: The killer is a woman who once tortured the detective. "The female serial killer is going to be fascinating," Marshall says.
When a book works, says Daniel Goldin, senior buyer at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, he braces himself for a slew of imitators, be they dog memoirs or Da Vinci Code-breakers. "There's 17 books that look like 'The Kite Runner,' " Mr. Goldin says. Similarly, he predicts this season's "Freakonomics" will be Richard Wiseman's Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things.
Jessa Crispin, editor and founder of the webzine bookslut.com, ignored this fall's supercharged nonfiction lineup – Oliver Sacks, Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, Stephen Pinker, Orhan Pamuk, and the late David Halberstam – and selected a sleeper: Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, due in October. "This is his memoir. He grew [up] in a very strict, Orthodox Jewish family," she says. "I think he's one of the funniest writers on the planet, even when it's dark material."
Beyond Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, Carole Horne believes the autumn list is somewhat weak in the biography and memoir categories. One self-explanatory title on people's lips is Clapton: The Autobiography, due at the beginning of October. Another: Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. "Martin is not a publicly introspective guy," says Publishers Weekly's Ms. Nelson, who describes the November release as a "history of comedy" from the 1970s onward. "I found it incredibly charming."
The presidential race may be heating up, but some booksellers are skeptical that earnest political books will do well. However, Jon Stewart proved "funny political" is a sure-fire seller. Horne predicts the book that's going to "bring people into the bookstores this fall" is Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). The mock-conservative pundit expounds on his "most deeply held knee-jerk beliefs," from evolution to the evils of Hollywood.
She points to another politics-lite title, the inspirational Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, just hitting stores. "It will be a big publishing and media-attention book," Horne says. Why? The writer is Bill Clinton.
But while Horne asserts, "We've run our course on books on how terrible the Bush administration is," one sober nonfiction book likely to buck the trend is Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, scheduled for early October. The searing treatise condemns the country's psychological response to 9/11, tying in foreign policy, the media, and America's mythic sense of self.
"She's the woman who wrote 'Backlash.' She's very smart, very serious," observes Nelson. "Maybe it's time. Maybe we can handle a serious book about 9/11 now."