It sounds like one of the worst judgment calls in publishing history. But as he worked on the manuscript by a young writer 25 years ago, Doubleday book editor Tom Congdon was eerily prophetic.
The author was Peter Benchley, the book was “Jaws,” and during one stretch in the summer of 1975, soon after Steven Spielberg’s hit movie was released, the paperback version sold 6 million copies in four months. It remains a marketing record.
Congdon’s careful editing is seen now as a model: He guided Benchley’s vision of a giant shark terrorizing beach-goers into a tightly paced book that gripped millions of readers. And the editor was more clairvoyant than he knew: The gory attacks that startled readers back then have indeed become repetitive - a tired theme in beach fiction.
Since “Jaws” first appeared, there have been dozens of shark-related titles, yet none has come close to equaling the original. You’d think the idea might be dead in the water by now, but New York publishers, like Hollywood moguls, never met an idea they didn’t try to copy over and over … and over.
Especially if it’s their own idea. This summer, the folks at Doubleday are sticking their toe in shark-infested waters once again, hoping for another big bite out of your wallet. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the bookstore, they have high hopes for a first novel by an unknown writer that stars a monster from the deep, an alcoholic hero, an idealistic scientist and, well, you get the picture.
“Meg” by Steve Alten is a Jurassic rehash of “Jaws,” with a 60-foot prehistoric predator feasting on bathers from San Diego to San Francisco. It could, like “Jaws,” benefit from a blockbuster summer marketing campaign and a big-budget movie further on down the road. But there the similarities end. The book world has changed dramatically in the 25 years since “Jaws,” and publishers prowling for summer profits now play by radically different rules.
For example, Universal Pictures acquired film rights to Benchley’s novel the old-fashioned way. Soon after Doubleday agreed to publish “Jaws,” editors began spreading the word about the book, and Hollywood came calling.
Richard Zanuck paid Benchley $175,000 for the rights and a screenplay. More important, he and other executives helped actively promote the book with a national tour of their own, long before it came to the screen. They also accelerated production, ensuring that the movie came out a year after the book and right in the middle of a huge paperback sale.
“That was unusual, but it made a lot of sense for them to do this,” recalls Stewart Applebaum, vice president of Bantam Books, which published the paperback edition of Benchley’s book and will do the same with “Meg” next year. “They were so committed to building awareness of the book while the movie was in production, and in the end it paid off for them and us. The timing was perfect.”
Sales records tell the story: “Jaws” was published in hardcover in January 1974 and sold about 250,000 copies, says Arlene Friedman, Doubleday’s president and publisher. When the paperback came out a year later, America couldn’t get enough. Three million copies were sold in the first four months of the year, and when the movie came out in June, another 6 million sold through October.
“People think today that a movie makes a summer book, but it was exactly the opposite with ‘Jaws,”’ says Sam Vaughn, who was Doubleday’s president and publisher in 1974. “This was a book that set the marketing pace, and Hollywood followed.”
Today, the tables have turned. Doubleday was eager to acquire “Meg” but had to wait in line. Like so many authors, Alten shopped his manuscript around to Hollywood studios before inking a book deal. The strategy was to sell movie rights, build industry buzz and then hit up the book world for a big advance. It worked like a charm.
Disney paid nearly $1 million for the rights, based on 100 pages of manuscript. Armed with that news, Alten’s agent, Ken Atchity, began circulating the draft in New York, and Bantam Doubleday Dell agreed to pay the unpublished author $2.1 million for “Meg” and an as-yet-untitled second novel.
Are American beach-goers ready for yet another shark book? Then as now, the key to summer success is a tricky combination of inventive publicity and that indefinable something that connects with a mass market audience.
“The trick,” says Jackie Everly, Doubleday’s executive marketing director, “is reaching people in the summer … at the beach, on holiday, all over the place. You have to connect your advertising and promotion with them and go where they are.” These days, there’s practically no difference between the marketing of summer books and summer movies.
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