Big splash for 'Code' follow-up

This is how a writer knows his books have grabbed the full attention of mainstream American culture. By the time Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," his first novel since 2003's "The Da Vinci Code," lands on bookstore shelves Tuesday, pre-orders will have kept it at or near the top of Amazon's bestseller list for the last 148 days. On Sunday, Parade magazine published a selection from "The Lost Symbol," the first time it has excerpted a novel in its 68-year history. Beginning last Tuesday, in a marketing merger between publisher Doubleday and NBC, "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer unveiled a clue a day about the closely guarded plot. And Hollywood is there too: "The Lost Symbol" will most certainly be the third of Brown's historical thrillers to hit the big screen.

While few believe "The Lost Symbol" will be the Holy Grail that will save publishing, combined with other likely big-sellers -- new books from John Irving, Audrey Niffenegger ("The Time Traveler's Wife"), Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood and Sara Paretsky (author of the V.I. Warshawski thrillers) -- it could go a long way toward shoring up the fall season.

Doubleday is shipping 5 million copies for the U.S. market and an additional 1.5 million to the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, with translations for other markets in the works. The question, though, is whether "The Lost Symbol" will give enough oomph to a book industry that is in a dismal time of lower sales, consolidations and layoffs.

"The more books that succeed, the better, obviously," says Sara Nelson, books columnist for the Daily Beast and former editor of Publishers Weekly. "But one book is not single-handedly going to save a business that has a lot of endemic problems," including an archaic distribution and sales system and uncertainty over the effect of e-books.

The new book once again features Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who, in "The Da Vinci Code," deciphered clues left by the painter in "The Last Supper" to uncover a hidden truth about Christianity. In the new book, Langdon turns his attention to Washington, D.C., and a hunt for a legendary Masonic treasure.

Such booksellers as John Evans, of the independent Diesel stores in Brentwood, Malibu and Oakland, have high hopes. "It will be a pretty big deal," says Evans, who anticipates strong long-term sales from the book. Although Brown's books are part of the mass pop culture, whose sales tend to be funneled through Amazon, big-box stores and large chains, Evans says they play well among customers at independents. That means "The Lost Symbol" could help bolster the beleaguered sector.

Other independent booksellers are less optimistic.

"I don't think this will be a 'big' book for us. Everyone is discounting it so ridiculously -- I'm not sure why the book world insists on devaluing the product that people most seem to want -- that I think most people will pick it up elsewhere," says Katie O'Laughlin of Village Books in Pacific Palisades. "We have about a dozen special orders and, at the request of a couple of people, we are going to be open from midnight until 12:30 Monday night. We had a lot more excitement a couple of weeks ago over the sequel to 'Hunger Games': 'Catching Fire,' a young adult novel that adults are also enjoying a la 'Twilight.' "

When it was released, "The Da Vinci Code" -- despite getting panned by critics -- rocketed to the top of bestseller lists, and it stayed there. It led Publishers Weekly's adult fiction list for 2003 and 2004, and came in second in 2005. There are 81 million copies in circulation worldwide, and the plot struck such a chord with readers that it spawned a tourism boom in Paris, Rome and other spots in its pages. It also launched college courses on the meanings of the Knights Templar and other arcana within its pages.

"There was something about the melding of the thriller with an emphasis on religion and religious history that was sort of the right zeitgeist at the moment," Nelson says.

But "The Da Vinci Code" also had its full-throated detractors: scholars who thought Brown's grasp of history was tenuous, and among the faithful -- including the Vatican and the organization Focus on the Family -- who saw the book as an attack on the Bible.

That didn't dampen enthusiasm, though. The movie version, starring Tom Hanks, was the second-highest grossing film of 2006 on a worldwide basis, selling $758.2 million worth of tickets, according to Box Office Mojo. "Angels & Demons," the film version of Brown's earlier book featuring Langdon (again with Hanks in the role), didn't do as well when it hit theaters in May, and has grossed $484.4 million worldwide, making it No. 4 so far this year. Both movies, which were largely panned by critics, did substantially better overseas than in the U.S.

Doubleday itself is toeing the line between optimism and unrealistic expectations for "The Lost Symbol," especially when it comes to comparisons with the massive success of "The Da Vinci Code."

That "was really a cultural phenomenon, and so I don't think anyone is holding expectations for this book against what has happened with 'The Da Vinci Code,' " says Jason Kaufman, Brown's longtime editor at Doubleday. "But expectations are very high. The book itself is absolutely terrific."

As J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series did for young adult novels, Brown's book rejuvenated the historical thriller market, sending readers to writers such as Steve Berry, and fanning interest in movies such as "National Treasure."

"Before 'The Da Vinci Code,' there weren't a lot of books that fell into that mode," Kaufman says. "Dan certainly is not the person who invented it. But he took the audiences and assembled them in a unique way."

And he captured their curiosity with his mix of history and fiction. Erik Larson, who teaches religious studies at Florida International University, says that in the months after "The Da Vinci Code" was published, students would show up at his office with questions about the Gnostic gospels and other thin slices of Christian history.

"I asked them why they were interested and they started telling me about 'The Da Vinci Code,' so I figured I'd look at it and see what's there," says Larson, who devised a "Behind 'The Da Vinci Code' " class. "I thought this would be a good course -- it touches on so many things."

Larson uses the book as an entry to discussing a wide range of Christian history.

"One of the nice things is you can develop the course around the interests you have," he says. "You can do the women in the life of Jesus, then move onto the Gnostic gospels, then do something on Constantine. From there we talk about the Masons and Leonardo Da Vinci and the Holy Grail stories . . . and Opus Dei and all that kind of stuff."

But the novel is more prop than resource. "I have them check out some of the facts, choose some explanation, then go through and evaluate it for accuracy," he says. "We use the book as a springboard."

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