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A storybook season

New fiction from big names gives sellers, readers a jolt

Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker, Dan Brown, and Nick Hornby have titles out this month. Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker, Dan Brown, and Nick Hornby have titles out this month.
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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The fall book-publishing season mirrors the movie industry’s Oscar-jockeying season. Publishers typically use the last few weeks running up to the holiday buying season to release their most prestigious, and commercially promising, new titles. But this fall is bringing an unusually sumptuous feast for lovers of literary fiction.

Authors releasing books this month include Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Margaret Atwood, Nicholson Baker, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Tyler. Alice Munro, Jonathan Lethem, Philip Roth, and the late Kurt Vonnegut have new titles coming soon, too. Thomas Pynchon, Pat Conroy, and E.L. Doctorow have all published recently.

It’s enough to make a voracious reader swoon. And local bookstores are feeling the buzz.

‘For the fall-winter sales period, Porter Square Books buyer Jane Jacobs normally orders six to eight titles in quantities as great as a dozen copies apiece. And that’s the upper end of what she expects to sell. This year she placed orders for two to three dozen copies of no fewer than 15 hardcover titles, one barometer of these A-list authors’ collective drawing power. “I’ve been in business for 12 years, and I’ve never seen this many big-name authors publish in one season before,’’ Jacobs said.

Brookline Booksmith ordinarily reserves seven display cases for its featured new releases: four for nonfiction, three for fiction. That ratio got flipped around recently as one ballyhooed novel after another rolled in. “It’s the best fall we’ve seen in a long, long time for big [fiction] books,’’ said co-owner Dana Brigham, whose store is hosting upcoming readings by Moore, Lethem, John Irving, and Nick Hornby.

Readers replacing their frothy summer beach-reads with more substantial fare is one reason for the glut of serious novels. But with book sales down nearly 18 percent in the first half of 2009 as compared with last year, publishers and authors are facing bigger issues than garnering glowing reviews. Reading and book-buying habits are changing rapidly, thanks to new players with names like Amazon and Kindle.

Those changes have upped the ante for major trade-book publishers, who last fall brought out a slew of weighty nonfiction books, many at least loosely tied to the 2008 presidential campaign. This season’s focus on quality fiction may ultimately say something profound about its commercial viability for years to come.

What might be called the Dan Brown Effect is another factor potentially affecting the timing of book releases. Brown is about to publish “The Lost Symbol,’’ his long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s “The Da Vinci Code.’’ Stephen King also has a new novel, “Under the Dome,’’ out in November. Books like those can stretch out the publishing season in both directions, early and late, as major houses try to avoid competing for reader attention - and sales - with commercial powerhouses like these. At the same time, they’re hopeful customers rushing to buy Brown’s or King’s latest will walk out with a Tyler or Roth novel under their arms, too.

“Nobody knows. It’s really a gamble on the publishers’ parts,’’ said Lynn Green, editor of Book Page, a monthly book review and website aimed at bookstores and libraries. It also might be a coincidence, though. Moore, for instance, has not released a new novel in more than a decade. For Doctorow and Irving, it’s been four years since their last novels appeared, while Trevor and Conroy have been on the publishing sidelines since 2002. “I doubt there was any grand design here,’’ said Paul Bogaards, publicity director for Alfred A. Knopf, Moore’s publisher. “Books are delivered on their own timetables.’’ In a tough economy, he concedes, publishers may feel pressure to pad their bottom line by rearranging their schedules. “This is a great time to be in a bookstore, no matter what week or month it is.’’

Chris Bohjalian, author of a dozen books, said that if publishers seek to fatten their year-end profits, that’s simply sound business judgment on their part. Timing is “always a crapshoot,’’ Bohjalian said. “But the wonderful thing about publishing is, it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of room for an Atwood, Irving, and Pynchon to get a lot of attention’’ at roughly the same time.

Whatever the reasons, the number of quality novels and story collections coming out this fall compared with last is striking. Last year “nobody thought they could publish big fiction successfully,’’ said Boston literary agent Wendy Strothman. “In tough times, people like to read good stories. Those who’ve professed the death of reading and books are being proven wrong.’’

Browsing a bookstore these days is “like being a kid in a candy store,’’ said Roberta Spang of Carlisle, a retired educator who is currently devouring Conroy’s latest, having recently polished off Richard Russo’s new novel. Kate Hoffman of Marblehead, an avid fiction reader, sees only one adverse side-effect.

“You get that stack of books piling up on the bedside table,’’ she said, “and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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