Best Seller Preview : The Misery of Stephen King

Stabiner is a free-lance writer.

It is a humbling thought: Many best-selling novels are made before you ever walk into the bookstore. There are bankable authors, just as there are bankable movie stars--a writer with a commercial track record, like an actor with a recent hit, needs only the anticipation of audience response to be assured a best-seller berth.

It starts the day the deal with a publisher is struck. While most mid-list novels earn advances in the $10,000-$20,000 range, a name-brand book can command a hundred times that amount. With so much money gambled, the publisher has to order a huge print run, since you can't make money if customers can't find the book. The print run demands a sizable advertising and promotion budget, to which bookstores respond with big orders and front-table displays. Impulsive buyer, you are really the last link in a carefully predetermined chain.

The name with the biggest box-office draw is Stephen King, author of "Misery" (Viking: $19.95). King is an entertainment industry unto himself, the Stephen Spielberg of books, who has two novels currently on the best-seller lists and has had half a dozen books and one short story turned into movies. He is the author as 600-pound gorilla: What does he write? Anything he wants.

This time he wants to write about the plight of the commercial novelist. Paul Sheldon is a writer of wondrously profitable romance novels who has blithely killed off his heroine, Misery Chastain, and just completed his first "serious" novel. When he wrecks his car, his savior is Annie Wilkes, an ax-wielding angel of mercy who holds Paul captive and demands that he write a new romance to bring Misery back to life.

The conceit enables King to kill two birds, and the requisite number of innocent bystanders, with one stone and a Lawnboy. King loyalists get their horror fix, and anyone who thinks genre fiction is beneath him might be enticed by philosophical passages about the creative process--if he isn't put off by King's grotesque notion of a binge-eating, depressive woman as Everyreader.

Viking will spend $400,000 in advertising and publicity to help move along a record printing of 1 million copies of this Book of the Month Club main selection.

Janet Dailey, who actually has graduated from the romance genre to mainstream romantic fiction, is not about to abandon a winning formula (more than 113 million copies of 12 novels in print): "Heiress" (Little, Brown: $17.95) is the story of two beautiful young women--Abbie and Rachel, the legitimate and illegitimate daughters, respectively, of a just-deceased Texas oil baron--who compete for money and love in a Houston neighborhood where no one seems to have heard of that city's economic crisis.

"Heiress" is full of torrid couplings, sweaty flanks and rippling muscles--and that's just in the subplot about breeding Arabian horses. Of the four principal bipeds, three spend a great deal of time experiencing a "desire that darkened his eyes and weighted their lids": In one incendiary passage, two of them go sloe-eyed within a single page. The lovemaking is thrilling, the clothes are designer label, and the horseplay, both literal and figurative, is swollen with sexual overtones. For most of the book's 480 pages, love triumphs over any adversity. That happy message has propelled the book into a 150,000 first printing and a $250,000 advertising-promotion budget, as well as a first serial sale to Cosmopolitan magazine and two book-club bids--"Heiress" is a Literary Guild alternate selection and a Doubleday Book club main pick.

Like Paul Newman winning an Oscar after seven tries, some books become best sellers, in part, because of accumulated good will. "Pale Kings and Princes" (Delacorte: $15.95) is Robert Parker's 14th novel about Spenser, that terrifically erudite Boston private eye who appears, diluted and de-quipped, in the TV series "Spenser: for Hire."

This time Spenser faces a grim task in a grimy Massachusetts town. While trying to discover who murdered a newspaper reporter investigating cocaine traffic, he stumbles upon a Colombian drug network that no one cares to discuss. Spenser discovers that the police chief's son is involved with the Colombians, as are his father and several other local cops, and suddenly people start dying too quickly for even a private detective's hardened hide. He stages a bravura drug heist to bring the bad guys out of hiding, and, as usual, calls in his stalwart companions, the elusive Hawk and the beauteous and impossibly composed Susan, his Jewish shrink girlfriend.

David Morrell is not half as well known as the above-mentioned authors, but he did create Rambo in his 1972 first novel, "First Blood." Two movies and a 1985 sequel novel later, he is a viable commercial property.

Now Morrell offers "The League of Night and Fog" (Dutton: $17.95), a maze of a story about a group of elderly concentration-camp survivors who kidnap a group of elderly former concentration-camp commanders, while a quartet of Ramboids converge on the old men. This time Morrell improves on his basic warrior model by creating a couple of hot-blooded heterosexual couples, so there's sex mixed in with the ample violence: One character's claim to fame is a maneuver in which she displayed her breasts to distract two assassins and killed them "so quickly that they died still leering."

Who knows? There may be more than one movie in this book, if someone can untangle the Medusa's head of a plot. Dutton is banking 75,000 copies and a $150,000 advertising and promotion budget on it.

In "Slam the Big Door," (Mysterious Press: $16.95), a 1960 paperback now being published in hard- cover, the late John D. MacDonald wrote about battles in miniature "A veiled glare passed from husband to wife, a smirk from a sullen blonde that tempts a man to ruin his life." Newly widowed Mike Rodenska, cigar-chomping newspaperman and self-deprecator supreme, visits war buddy Troy Jamison and his wealthy second wife Mary at their home in Florida. But nothing is as smug as it seems. Troy's Horseshoe Pass Estates development is floundering, as is his marriage, while the dark specter of an earlier bout with alcohol and nervous breakdown looms again.

What was supposed to be a vacation, an opportunity to let the sun bake away his grief, turns into Rodenska's futile attempt to save a friend.

"Slam the Big Door" was published before MacDonald created the popular Travis McGee and found fame and a hardcover publisher; Rodenska, something of a McGee prototype, doesn't miss a trick. Neither did his creator.

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