Publishers Scramble for Meaning of Christmas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday

Once upon a time, Richard Paul Evans wrote a simple story for his two young daughters about the meaning of Christmas. He later published the short tale himself, and watched it sell in store after store, until Simon & Schuster recognized a sure thing and paid him $4.2 million for the chance to turn the book into a seasonal evergreen.

Released by S & S in November 1995, "The Christmas Box" sold more than 1.2 million decorative 5-by-7-inch copies. And so, predictably, other publishers have scurried to come up with this year's "Christmas Box," staging a crowded competition to produce the biggest-selling heart warmer in the busiest book-buying season of the year.

Still competing is the original "Christmas Box," back this year. Boy, is it back. The publisher has distributed an additional 875,000 copies. The 125-page, so-called "classic" edition of the hardcover now costs $14.95--that's $2 more than last year--and a slip-cased "collector's edition" is $23.

In addition, "The Christmas Box" has been boxed along with Evans' best-selling prequel from last spring, "Timepiece," in still another package that goes for $30. (A TV movie of "Timepiece" and a rebroadcast of "The Christmas Box" are scheduled for later this month.)

As for Evans, the former advertising executive from Salt Lake City, is a Santa of publishing. He has fulfilled an older contract with Gibbs-Smith, a small publisher near his home in Utah, to produce "The First Gift of Christmas," a collection of brief thoughts exploring the themes of the season. Evans also reads S & S' audio version of William Dean Howells' "Christmas Every Day," a 19th century story of father and daughter that he had woven into the plot of "The Christmas Box."

The $8 book version of "Christmas Every Day" has been published by S & S' Pocket Books division.

Other entries in the field of holiday offerings include Maeve Binchy's "This Year It Will Be Different," a collection of Christmas stories from Delacorte that is already a national bestseller; Jonathan Snow's "The Most Beautiful Gift," an 88-page Italian import translated and published by Warner in which Grandpa Gus assures 7-year-old Mark, "The spirit of the holiday is in your soul," and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' "Certain Poor Shepherds," an S & S tale of Christ's birth told from the animals' perspective by the author of the bestseller "The Hidden Life of Dogs." Adding to this glut is Carol Lynn Pearson's "A Stranger for Christmas," a story set in a Southern California nursing home that was first published in 1984 and which has now been reissued by St. Martin's Press.

"The Christmas Tree," written by former Wall Street Journal film critic Julie Salamon, may become a breakout hit for Random House. Salamon's novel, inspired by a convent's gift last year of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, will be dramatized later this month in a TV movie directed by Sally Field and starring Julie Harris.

"I do think that these books run the risk of canceling each other out because it's so hard to stand out in the crowd," said Kate Jackman, a buyer of holiday books for the Borders / Waldenbooks chain.

Nevertheless, surveying the field, Jackman said she expected "The Christmas Tree" to do well because it is "a beautiful little package" and its plot, involving a tree-loving nun and a jaded Rockefeller Center horticulturist, breaks new ground beyond "The Christmas Box." Random House, which introduced the book in October, reported recently that there are now about 320,000 copies in print.

In addition, Jackman believes that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (S & S), a pop-up book by New York author-illustrator Robert Sabuda, will prove popular this month because it's designed for adults but can be given to youngsters, too.

* Paul D. Colford's column is published Thursdays.

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