Shelling Out for Sheldon

Just as he’s done for the last third of his life, the author Sidney Sheldon ended the year with a multimillion-dollar book deal, this time for a novel called Are You Afraid of the Dark? , which is expected to be published in 2003 by his longtime publisher, William Morrow. But the octogenarian author will also, at long last, write his memoirs-for another publisher. Warner Books, which has long published Mr. Sheldon in paperback, will release both the hard- and softcover versions of the memoir, cheekily titled The Other Side of Me .

“I think it’s going to be a very big book,” AOL Time Warner Book Group chief executive Larry Kirshbaum predictably told me, calling Sheldon “one of the all-time, above-the-line marquee names.”

But is he still?

For publishing watchers, the Sheldon question goes on a list with others to be addressed in the coming year: Will we go to war with Iraq? Will Pete Rose finally be let into the Hall of Fame? While Mr. Kirshbaum insists that Mr. Sheldon-whose paperbacks, he says, still sell around two million copies per title-is in the Clancy/Grisham mold, others wonder if his memoir won’t go the way of the recent offering from Judith ( Scruples ) Krantz. That similar glitz-and-glamour author’s power base approached full erosion with her 2000 memoir, Sex and Shopping . Published by St. Martin’s Press, Ms. Krantz’s candid account of herself as a nice Jewish girl gone Hollywood may have shown readers that the scarily well-preserved author is “just like the plucky heroines of her novels,” according to People magazine, but on a commercial level, it was “a dud,” said one executive involved with the project: “By the time that book happened, people had stopped reading Krantz. Younger readers had barely even heard of her.”

Mr. Kirshbaum prefers to look to another popular novelist turned memoirist for sales inspiration. The week Warner made the deal with Mr. Sheldon’s agent, Mort Janklow, megaselling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark’s Kitchen Privileges -an account of the writer’s hardscrabble beginnings in the Bronx-hit the extended New York Times best-seller list, and the author won an award from Reader’s Digest . (Ms. Clark’s longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, signed up Kitchen Privileges , along with four novels, in a healthy eight-figure deal back in 2000.) Like Ms. Clark’s, “Sidney’s [life] is a real Horatio Alger story,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “It’s heartwarming.”

Mr. Kirshbaum also points out that before he became a novelist, Mr. Sheldon had a hugely successful TV and movie career. He created such TV series as The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie , and he wrote the screenplays for Annie Get Your Gun and Easter Parade , among others. One could argue that Mr. Sheldon has a wider range than, say, Ms. Krantz and that his memoir will be less personal gossip than Hollywood gossip. “He really spans all of show business and, in some respect, he’s a historian of the changes that have taken place” in the entertainment business, Mr. Kirshbaum said. In that way, he’s more like Michael Korda, the publishing honcho who wrote several successful memoirs about growing up as Hollywood royalty.

But if the autobiography-whose title plays on that of Sheldon’s best-known book, The Other Side of Midnight -promises to be so great, how come Morrow, which has published every one of Mr. Sheldon’s works of fiction since The Naked Face in 1970, isn’t publishing it? While no Morrow executive would comment on the record, it is widely believed in that house and elsewhere that the memoir was originally part of a two-book offering-and that Morrow passed. “Obviously, they didn’t feel it would sell well enough to be worth the money they’d pay,” said one editor. Another points out a crucial difference between Mr. Sheldon and Ms. Clark: “Her books are still huge sellers. His still do well, but he’s no longer at the top of the lists.”

It’s not unusual, of course, for an author-even a highly successful author-to switch houses mid-career. New publisher equals new energy equals new sales, the theory goes. But Mr. Sheldon will turn 86 this year; even the ever-upbeat and enthusiastic Mr. Kirshbaum can’t expect to have many more opportunities to publish a work by Mr. Sheldon. “Maybe not,” agrees an editor at another house, “but there’s real value to a publisher to be the last contract holder of record. Look at Ludlum,” she says, referring to the author who died in 2001 but still has books coming from St. Martin’s. “There still can be money to be made.”

– Sara Nelson