Big Fun in Frankfurt: King Jumps Viking’s Ship

The pressure cooker that is the annual Frankfurt Book Fair-9,600 companies from 106 countries in 184,000 square meters of crisp German convention center-reached its boiling point around 2 P.M. on Day 3 of the weeklong event. Alberto Vitale, chief executive of Random House Inc., was trying to add yet more meetings to those already scheduled at his conspicuously positioned round table; agent Andrew Wylie was running frenetically between rival houses; publisher Sarah Crichton anxiously hunkered down in her Little, Brown & Company bunker; Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, worked the aisles as though she used to be in politics; and Morgan Entrekin, Grove-Atlantic Inc.’s publisher, burst out of his busy booth in pursuit of Nobel Prize in Literature winner Dario Fo (he returned with Raymond Chandler’s letters instead).

By then, the fair’s big rumors, half-truths, done deals and carefully orchestrated buzz were ricocheting off the walls. That Elton John’s memoirs were being offered for $6 million. That Random House executive vice president Jane Friedman was absent because she was finalizing her arrangement to succeed Anthea Disney as president and chief executive of Harper Collins (a move that Harper Collins confirmed on Oct. 27). That in the auction for the fair’s hot novel, a contemporary fairy tale called Chocolat , William Morrow & Company had just been beaten out by Viking, while Henry Holt chief Michael Naumann was acquiring African-American writer A.J. Verdelle’s new novel for $550,000. And, of course, that no more than six publishers were in receipt of a letter marked “urgent” and “confidential” from Stephen King’s lawyer-agent Arthur Greene, announcing that the longtime Viking author had decided to take his haunting hulk elsewhere and would shortly be entertaining their best offers.

The price tag attached to Bag of Bones , the novel Mr. King managed to dangle in front of potential suitors just before they left for the overheated atmosphere of Frankfurt, is high. Word among the suitors was that over at Penguin Putnam, which includes Viking, president Phyllis Grann had drawn the line at $21 million, a million dollars more than Mr. King was paid for his last book. But Mr. King appears to be suffering, as one publisher put it, from “only-child syndrome”: With the merger of Penguin and Putnam under Pearson P.L.C.’s corporate umbrella, Mr. King has been forced to share the limelight with Ms. Grann’s star, Putnam author Tom Clancy, whose recent $100 million multimedia deal with Penguin Putnam comes down to $25 million for his next book.

The enormous advances some publishers have been willing to pay so far are not so much a reflection of the authors’ earning power as of brand-name value. Mr. King’s sales, in fact, are not on the rise, and he, Mr. Clancy and many other multimillion-dollar authors bring in less than they cost their publishers. Ms. Grann, said a publishing executive familiar with Mr. King’s numbers, “has one of the shrewd business heads in publishing, and she won’t overspend just to brighten up her marquee.” In other words, Ms. Grann’s resources would be better spent finding a different best-selling writer to help support her company’s lesser lights and midlist. Besides, Mr. King doesn’t furnish the licensing and product opportunities that Mr. Clancy does.

Here is the interesting wrinkle in Mr. King’s makeup: While measuring himself financially against the likes of Mr. Clancy, he remains enthralled by literary cachet. Hence his representative’s approach to such publishers as Alfred A. Knopf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Scribner, which is further attractive to Mr. King because it is headed by Viking graduate Nan Graham. Knopf insiders acknowledge they could use Mr. King to fill the hole left by Dean Koontz; Scribner has the mass-market concerns of parent company Simon & Schuster egging it on; and Farrar, which could make a joint hard-soft arrangement with sister company St. Martin’s Press, can’t coast on Scott Turow forever. “The book is good,” said Farrar editor in chief Jonathan Galassi. “We’re honored to have the submission.”

Sadly, William Morrow, the publishing company most in need of a Stephen King-scale author, is hard-pressed to afford him, given the $5 million and $6 million, respectively, it spent on its floundering titles by Paul Reiser and Whoopi Goldberg. But no one seemed to think that, in hard financial terms, Mr. King was worth more than what Ms. Grann was offering, and many number-crunchers in publishing put it at a lot less.

Back at home, as Mr. King’s lawyer traveled like a big scary bat from pitch meeting to pitch meeting, beginning at Scribner on Oct. 23, the murmurs coming out of book circles were that the situation was offering publishers the opportunity to put outrageous and impractical advances where they’ve been saying they should be: back in their pockets. If that happened, Mr. King would have to stay at Viking. Of course, Viking was saying nothing at Frankfurt.

The variety of King gossip swirling around quickly confirmed that you can take publishing people out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of publishing. Bickering and schmoozing, pitching and bitching, they were a chattering microcosm of the Manhattan publishing world.

Indeed, for those only familiar with Mr. Entrekin’s reputation as a late-night carouser, it might have come as a surprise to see him mobile and hyperactive at a daylight hour. His small independent house’s success with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was making him the leader of the American contingent’s growing small-is-beautiful pack. Others busy comparing the benefits of a conglomerate-free existence included former Henry Holt & Company’s editor in chief, William Strachan, at Columbia University Press; Harper Collins alumnus Jack McKeown, who is helping to relaunch Basic Books; and former Viking Penguin chief Peter Mayer, now retrenched at Overlook Press. Was Mr. Entrekin going to give the lie to one European publisher’s comment that “the parties are what Frankfurt is about, the rest is foreplay”?

He did not disappoint. Although he missed the early evening screening of Adrian Lyne’s controversial version of Lolita , he managed to close down the bar at the Frankfurter Hof (the fair’s equivalent of, say, Balthazar) every night, and from 10 P.M. ad infinitum one evening, he enthusiastically embraced his duties as a host of a “Rock at Frankfurt” party. This networking opportunity was ostensibly organized to showcase thriller writer Ken Follett’s R&B band. But it also proved that Broadway Books editor in chief John Sterling never sheds his tie, even at the urging of author (and former boss) Joe Kanon, who, with the introduction of his novel Los Alamos in German, was apparently the most popular American writer at Frankfurt.

In fairness, though, when it came to striptease, the cover of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s forthcoming book, Bitch, took the cake. However closely guarded a secret at her American publisher, Doubleday, it was on display poster-size at her English house, Quartet, with a nude Ms. Wurtzel flipping the bird and baring a breast.

Betting that the tide against such memoirists as Ms. Wurtzel is about to turn, Mr. Wylie, who had shunned the slyly walled-in Agents and Scouts Center for a rather capacious stand of his own, had set up his client, James Atlas, editor of the Lipper-Penguin Biography Series, to sell as many global rights to the first eight installments of the series as possible (for starters: Garry Wills on St. Augustine, Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Janet Malcolm on Anton Chekhov, Patricia Bosworth on Marlon Brando). For the series’ mini-life of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan, Mr. Atlas is apparently in the process of lining up a future cover of Time magazine.

In the background, Mr. Wylie could be heard telling a potential buyer, “I’m not interested in Danielle Steele; I only care about quality.” That was doubtless why the agent was representing one of the many works-in-progress about the Princess of Wales at the fair. The three being favored to break out were: Diana: A Life in Fashion , from the English packager Pavillion; Letitia Baldridge’s Legendary Brides; and a Callaway Editions selection from the 30,000 images on file with the late Princess’ royal photographer, Jayne Fincher.

David Chalfant, vice president of the International Management Group’s literary division, wanted everyone to know that the crash of Dodi el-Fayed’s Mercedes was not a mitigating factor in Elton John’s decision to write his memoirs. As of press time, Mr. Chalfant had yet to meet with interested publishers to try to match author with house. But the alleged $6 million asking price and, according to Mr. Chalfant, the toupeed one’s global appeal, will probably necessitate what he referred to as “an investment in world rights by a multinational entity.”

Big Fun in Frankfurt: King Jumps Viking’s Ship