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Publishers close book on signing parties

An Australian politician signs a copy of her autobiography in Sydney.

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Kai Ryssdal: It's a pretty good week to be in the book business if you happen to have a stock of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in your warehouse. Not such a good week, though, if you've got a book coming out and your name's not J.K. Rowling.

Once upon a time, publishers would go the extra mile to help out their first-time writers. These days though, authors shouldn't expect much. Sally Herships reports the book party, which used to be a staple of the publishing industry, has largely vanished.


Sally Herships: Taylor Antrim is a first-time novelist. He wrote his book, "The Headmaster Ritual," almost three years ago. It was finally published last week. He's excited, but there is one problem:

Taylor Antrim: It does happen to be the month that Harry Potter is dropping on us.

Antrim says July is a tough month for books. Magazines are skinnier, which means less advertising and fewer book reviews.

Antrim: And then when you add to that the fact that just the biggest book, you know, in the world is coming out in July, it casts a pretty big shadow.

The marketing machine behind the new Harry Potter book is intimidating. If this were the '80s or the '90s, Antrim's publisher might have thrown him a party to generate some counter-buzz.

Paul Bogards works for the publishing house Knopf. He says book parties aren't popular these days, and for good reason:

Paul Bogards: There isn't any conclusive evidence to suggest that a book party results in book sales. If they were, we'd be spending a lot more on canapA©s and hors d'oeuvres, trust me.

Bogards says publishers are still feeding people on their dime, but less of them. Instead of throwing parties, publishers are holding intimate dinners for press, authors and store owners. They think they're getting better chemistry for a lower price.

Bogards: You want that special spark to take hold. And if it does, I mean a book seller will walk away from an event like that and say, "You know, I met so-and-so, and they told me the story about their book and . . . " Well, and that's how a book comes to life.

Charlotte Abbott is a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. She says today's publishers spend more on getting books into the market then on parties.

Charlotte Abbott: Because no matter how much someone's heard about a book, if they can't find it in the stores, it's kind of a non-starter.

Antrim knew his publisher wasn't planning a bash. So he was left waiting like a debutante for someone else to offer to throw a party for him.

Which is exactly what happened. His cousin, Carolyn Millbank, has a very nice apartment in Manhattan.

Antrim: A few weeks ago, I got a nice e-mail from her saying "Oh my gosh, we would love to throw a book party for you. Please tell me no one has offered yet." And of course, no one had offered yet.

Carolyn Millbank: We're both writers. It's so much fun to have him publish a book.

Carolyn Millbank said the tab at the party for food, drinks and people to pass them out came to about 2,000 bucks. Not bad when you hear Charlotte Abbott describe a book party for Bill Clinton.

Abbott: That party had to cost like $60,000 or more, I would think. It was packed. And then also, I don't know who pays to put the red carpet out in front — you have to rent a red carpet.

Taylor Antrim didn't get a red carpet, of course — it's his first novel. But Abbott says Harry Potter author JK Rowling didn't get one either the first time round.

Abbott: There's been there's perception of all this hype, but it did not start out that way. It was really a kid's word-of-mouth thing.

Abbott says first-time authors can't count on the same kind of unprecedented underground success that carried Harry Potter. She says marketing and buzz are important and parties are nice, but first-time authors should focus on the people they meet in the book industry.

Abbott: You can't afford not to make the best impression on them possible. Because the fate of your book is really in their hands.

In other words, the book business is like any other: it's relationships that matter.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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