Hey, Look at All These Novels to Read!

richard powers credit jan Hey, Look at All These Novels to Read!Fall is coming.

In publishing, this signals the start of a season that many believe has the best chance of any in recent memory to redeem the industry after one of its darkest years, and to show that, even in 2009, big, beautiful hit books are still possible. 

Many publishers are saying their fall catalogs are their strongest in years, and after last fall, an unqualified disaster that left the industry demoralized and diminished, much is at stake as their hopes are tested. As one publishing veteran put it, “if this fall doesn’t work out, a lot more of us will not have jobs next year.”

Scribner has it all on the line for Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, for which they paid $5 million in March. HarperCollins has Michael Crichton’s posthumous pirate book. Knopf Doubleday is preparing for blockbusters by Pat Conroy, Jon Krakauer, and of course, Dan Brown–whose Lost Symbol will be a marathon of a publishing job by itself, but one that promises to pay the division’s rent for years and bring stability to the entire Random House castle.

Such foolproof commercial juggarnauts help publishers and booksellers sleep at night, but the literary-minded among them can cheer too– holy autumn! What a bunch of novels!

Thomas Pynchon has a new book coming on August 4, as does Richard Russo. Random House is publishing a novel by E. L. Doctorow on September 1st. A week after that, Knopf brings out Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Nan Talese follows with Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux comes in a little later with Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement. In October there will be memoirs from Edmund White and Michael Chabon, and new novels from Jonathan Lethem, John Irving, A. S. Byatt, and Dave Eggers. November (think: holiday gifts) will see the publication of new works from Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Vladimir Nabokov. 

Such moments of confluence are rare. Depending on your metric, truly memorable ones tend to come around once every decade or so.

The start of 1985 saw Don Delillo’s White Noise and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian published in the space of a few weeks. The next time it happened was 1997, when Delillo’s Underworld, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Haruki Marukami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Roth’s American Pastoral were published within months of each other. The last instance any of the people interviewed for this article brought up was the fall of 2006, which saw the publication of Eggers’ What is the What, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, Powers’ The Echo Maker, Atwood’s Moral Disorder, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

Such windfalls stick in one’s memory, and having lived through one, you look forward to the next. 

“It was exciting,” said Granta editor John Freeman of fall 2006, who until recently was a full-time freelance book critic. “It’s sort of like Christmas come early. Suddenly there was a period like: big novel, big novel, big novel. I had this slightly neurotic sense like, surely all these books can’t be this good– but they were! Which was quite nice, because normally you get one good one, and then, you know, some other books.”  

Even in historical context, the fall of 2009 strikes some as extraordinary.

“I have never seen another year like this,” said Sarah McNally, the owner of the popular Soho bookstore McNally Jackson. “I can hardly bear to think about fall’s books, it’s like looking bare-eyed into the sun.”

“I can’t really think of any time since I’ve been in the business, when I had a sense of the degree of anticipation for upcoming books, that would equal this fall,” said the Gernert Co. literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb.

With optimism, however, comes worry—particularly because shoving every major release into the same three months could very well result in a traffic jam that will benefit no one.  

“Given that the odds of all the books living up to the author’s and publisher’s expectations are quite slim, it’s a little intimidating,” said Martha Levin, the publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint. “There will be books that get buried in the crush and will not sell as well as did the author’s previous book. It’s inevitable. As a publisher, you stick with the attitude that your books will prevail—until proven to the contrary.”

“But yes,” she added. “It is exciting. Just kind of scary too.”

Predictably, there are some who say this fall is nothing special– that book publishing whips itself into a frenzy every year around this time. 

“The notion that a killer line-up of books is headed to the stores is a fantasy that big corporate publishers entertain every year starting in spring,” said one editor at a major house. “After they’ve dug out from the post-Christmas returns and begun to face the fact that their spring titles aren’t working.”

“Honestly? They always release a flood of fiction in September and October,” said freelance book publicist Kimberly Burns, who has been in the business for 14 years. “I was at Random House when they made the decision– unheard of at the time– to release a John Irving book in July instead of one of the fall months. Like there’s a bad month to release a John Irving book.”
For the literary agent Ira Silverberg of Sterling Lord Literistic, the thrill that comes with seeing all the warhorses released at the same time does not make the practice any less financially perilous. 
“It gets us excited, but the big question is, will people buy that many books?” Mr. Silverberg said. “What’s unfortunate about that is, it’s a short season! All these books are coming out in three months, and there’s overlap in their core audiences. Also, these are hardcover books– at 25 to 30 dollars! That’s tough.”
But isn’t there something grand about such a march of giants as the one coming this fall? Something triumphant?
“Look, you want an enthusiastic statement?” Mr. Silverberg said. “I think it’s fantastic that there are so many great writers coming out in those months. I think it speaks to our cultural activity as a people and the fact that these publishers, many of whom are douchebags, have not totally foresaken literary fiction.”
OF COURSE, THERE is no guarantee that any of the literary novels being published this fall has a chance of becoming a blockbuster. Could it be that the infrastructure of book publishing and literary culture as a whole have been disrupted too severely over the past decade for that to happen? 
“It’s a new world,” said Mr. Silverberg. “We are trying to figure out how to develop audiences for fiction very quickly, because so many of the things that traditionally worked we are being told do not work anymore. The author tour has been abandoned. Reviews don’t seem to be selling books.”
Mastery of the old model of promotion and publicity is no longer enough, it seems. And so publishers have been trying to figure out a new way to sell fiction. Earlier this year, an editor described the frustration of introducing a promising debut novelist. 
“Every time I think about this book it freaks me out,” the editor said in an e-mail. “I know exactly how to publish it … five years ago. This season? No clue. Five years ago (OK, maybe eight) a book as good as this could have been reviewed in six to ten different book supplements at once; which could have led to radio coverage; which might have led to Charlie Rose and the rest of it. And the reviews alone would have generated sales. In, you know, bookstores.” 
“The mood in the industry has been downbeat, to put it lightly,” said Mr. Parris-Lamb, who believes fall 2009 will be the best season literary fiction has seen in a decade. “And when it feels like no one is paying attention to the books you’re publishing, you take that and project it onto the books that, in my case, you’re thinking of representing or, in an editor’s case, buying. If we could have a big fall, hopefully that would get people feeling better about the books we’re acquiring now that are going to be published in two years.”

“We’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” he said. “And if we can’t do it with books like this, that’s a bad thing.”

lneyfakh@observer.com

—Additional reporting by Eliza Shapiro and Molly Fischer