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Bill Cosby’s Appeal Is One for the Book; ‘Fatherhood’ Does Best With 2.1 Million

Times Staff Writer

In the publishing industry’s version of capture the flag, a slender, $14.95 volume on the joys and travails of paternity has staked its claim as history’s fastest-selling hardcover.

Published May 23, Bill Cosby’s “Fatherhood” numbered 2.1 million copies in print by the week of Oct. 1, thus eclipsing previous title-holder “Iacocca: An Autobiography” and forcing Guinness-book record keepers to hastily revise their tables.

“I don’t think it was a surprise,” said Ellen Mastromonaco, advertising director at Doubleday, publisher of the Cosby book. “Certainly by the time summer rolled around, we had gotten used to what was happening.” Launched with a huge Father’s Day promotional tie-in, “Fatherhood” simply established an early sales momentum that refused to quit. Still, Mastromonaco conceded, “We did not expect to have 2 million copies in print by Oct. 1, no.”

‘You May Dream and Fantasize’

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“You never go into this business expecting to reach that stratospheric level,” said Stuart Applebaum, vice president of Bantam, the publisher of “Iacocca: An Autobiography.”

“You may dream and fantasize, move your lips silently in prayer hoping that it will happen,” Applebaum said, “but you dare not speak it aloud, because it was so unlikely to happen until this last couple of years.”

Added Applebaum, laughing, “I don’t know what all this means.”

What it means, clearly, is giant dollar sales coupled with massive distribution, aggressive discounting programs, sales in unexpected markets and promotional campaigns that made Grant’s conquest of Richmond look like a tailgate picnic.

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Co-written by the Chrysler Corp. chief executive officer and William Novak, “Iacocca: An Autobiography” was published by Bantam Books Hardcover in October of 1984 and “crossed the 2 million-copy Rubicon,” as Applebaum put it, the following July. In so doing, “Iacocca” aced out Alex Haley’s “Roots” (Doubleday) for the fastest-selling-hardcover position that even Applebaum agreed “does get you a little dizzy after a while.”

Of the “Fatherhood” phenomenon, Applebaum said, “Less than six months to hit 2.1 million copies is amazing, and it may be almost freakish.”

“Books like ‘Roots,’ ‘Iacocca’ and ‘Fatherhood,’ ” said Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly and a longtime observer of publishing trends, “certainly reached beyond the group of regular book readers.”

Echoed Applebaum: “We are in a time in book publishing and retailing where a fabulously successful book can reach stratospheric heights previously only dreamed of.

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“These books are selling to people who don’t normally buy books,” Applebaum said. “After all the bobblegook, that’s the bottom line.”

‘It’s a Real Event’

Indeed, Applebaum said, “These books are being picked up and bought by people who may not have bought a book in hardcover since the Bible. When they buy a book in hardcover it’s a real event. It’s comparable to people for whom the last movie they saw was ‘E.T.’ ”

While no actual figures exist for a public-domain book published in countless editions, the Bible is widely regarded as the largest-selling book in history. Among the top sellers in recent hardcover history are Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston

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Seagull,” with 3 million copies in print since it appeared in 1970, and “Gone With the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell, with 6 million copies since publication in 1936. Both books are from Macmillan.

But the enormous hardcover sales surges are a recent phenomenon. In the first half of this decade, for example, “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book” (Simon & Schuster) and “In Search of Excellence” (Harper & Row), by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, were the only two hardcover books to cross the million-sales mark.

By contrast, in 1985 alone, five hardcovers soared past the million-copies figure. Along with the Iacocca autobiography, they were “Yeager: An Autobiography” (Bantam), by Gen. Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos; Jean Auel’s “The Mammoth Hunters” (Crown); “Texas” (Random House) by James Michener; and Garrison Keilor’s “Lake Wobegon Days” (Viking).

Nipping at the heels of “Fatherhood,” one month and one day following its Sept. 22 publication date, Kitty Kelley’s “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra” (Bantam) was posting 952,000 copies in print.

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Like Cosby’s “Fatherhood"--and for that matter, not unlike “Iacocca” or even the mini-series-identified “Roots"--Kelley’s Sinatra biography has quick name recognition, for the subject, anyway, if not necessarily for the author. In all these cases, moreover, television played a major role in enhancing consumer familiarity.

“You’re talking about a mass audience phenomenon,” Applebaum said. “These books do appeal to a broad-based television viewing audience.”

Nevertheless, he cautioned, “Being a TV superstar in and of itself does not guarantee you best-sellerdom.” At the height of his success as a television talk-show host, for example, Merv Griffin came out with an autobiography that became only a moderate best seller. Last spring’s memoirs from “Dynasty” star Diahann Carroll, Applebaum said, “had no appreciable sales impact.”

‘Event or Personality’

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“If you look at the books that have sold very large numbers in very short amounts of time,” Publisher’s Weekly’s Maryles said, “they generally are characterized by an event, or by a personality helped by exposure that goes beyond the normal book exposure in print.”

In addition, Maryles said, discount pricing by chain and independent book stores has had a major influence on what she termed “mega best sellers.” “There have been more best sellers selling larger and larger numbers,” she said, “and that is the result of imaginative outlets and the discounting, and in many cases the publicity.”

But the three “fastest-selling-hardcover” contenders also contain another common element, Doubleday’s Mastromonaco suggested. “All of them seem to be in different ways sort of quintessential American books,” she said, addressing, “the American ideal of themselves.”

And doing so in a non-intimidating fashion, Mastromonaco went on. “For those who people who may be afraid to read,” she said, “a book like the Cosby book makes reading less scary, more appealing.”

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Agreed Bantam’s Applebaum, “You don’t need a post-doctoral degree in English to be able to enjoy ‘Jaws,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ Louis L’Amour, Iacocca or Sinatra.” As Applebaum recalled, it was the late best-selling author Jacqueline Susann who said, when asked if her books would continue to be popular in years to come, “Of course. There’s a new 16-year-old born every day.”

“These writers,” Applebaum said, “are writing for a broad national audience and giving their readers much pleasure.”

With publishers crowing over such gargantuan sales, that pleasure is by no means confined to the reading/buying public. The quest for the mega-best-seller formula has publishers madly practicing a kind of top-level alchemy, furiously trying to capture the multimillion-copy magic.

“Oh sure, they’re trying to grab that magic,” Maryles said. “That’s why publishers are spending a lot of money for books. That’s why there’s so much competition for titles that are going to do big numbers.” As one example, Maryles cited James Clavell’s “Whirlwind,” often referred to as “the $5-million book” since William Morrow & Co. paid that sum to publish it.

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“Clavell will sell,” Maryles predicted. “That’s the kind of book discounters, chains and independents are going to stack high. It’s going to be marketed heavily.”

But as Doubleday’s Mastromonaco said of the mega-best-seller phenomenon, “the book has to deliver.” For “Roots,” “Iacocca” and “Fatherhood,” she said, “each of these books is good at what it is.”

Certainly Doubleday is itself hoping to dab on another mega-dose of eau-de- best-sellerdom when it publishes a second book by Cosby next fall. Still untitled, that book will deal with the subject of aging. Said Mastromonaco, “We really do expect that book to be bigger than ‘Fatherhood,’ an even more phenomenal phenomenon.”


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