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Conventional wisdom: Familiarity breeds business in books

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Here are some of the new books that were being touted at the American Booksellers Association convention, held last weekend at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a massive glass building on the edge of a neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side: A novel about a man having a conversation with an ape.

A non-fiction book about a team of Xerox salespeople in Cleveland.

A novel about a woman talking to a little god in her kitchen.

As Dave Barry might say: I'm not making this up.

Barry was among the hundreds of authors who showed up to flack their books at the annual convention which was first held in 1901 in New York City at the Hotel Earlington. Back then the Earlington charged $1.50 for "a large room with bath." Today that wouldn't even get you a slice of pizza in the Big Apple.

The ABA has traditionally been billed as the event in the American publishing world, when publishers woo the nation's booksellers with lavish parties, free posters and chances to meet their favorite authors, normally abnormally shy people who are expected to act like snake oil salesmen. Not only are they paraded around the parties at discos, dinners at chic restaurants (the Putnam bash at the pricey Four Seasons cost an estimated $100,000), early morning breakfasts in hotel ballrooms and press conferences in cramped rooms, but they are plopped down at rows of tables marked A, B, C and D in Areas 1, 2 and 3 where they are obliged to sign copies of the books they spent years in solitude writing.

This year nearly 300 writers were subjected to this odd literary ritual at the convention which was attended by more than 10,000 booksellers, publishers and autograph hounds.

Barry was the guest of honor at a party at the Plaza Hotel given by the publisher of his book, Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Never Read (Ballantine/Del Rey/Fawcett/Ivy Books). On Saturday from 2:45-3:45, he was slotted to sign his John Hancock to (and give out free copies of) Dave Barry Turns 40 and Dave Barry Talks Back (his latest book from Fawcett). As far as I know, no publisher took him up on the suggestions he made at the convention for future books he could write: Moby Dick and Everything I Knew Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It in Kindergarten.

But Barry was on the right track. According to the current wisdom in publishing, if a book reminds us of another book that is already a best seller, we'll fall for it. So Donna Tartt's The God of Illusions (Knopf) is compared to William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. J.

F. Freedman's Against the Wind (Viking Penguin) is heralded as the next Presumed Innocent. Alan Kuzweil's A Case of Curiosities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), we are told, will evoke Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose. And, of course, Amy Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, that book about a woman talking to a little god in her kitchen, will surely remind us of her first best seller, The Joy Luck Club.

Even when a book promotion was unique, the need to cling to past successes was in evidence. On the convention floor, a man, whose left side was clothed in traditional American Indian garb and whose right side was dressed in a business suit, handed me a feather promoting a book about an Indian caught between two worlds. The card attached to the feather: If you liked Dances With Wolves, you'll love Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota (Blue Bird Publishing, Tempe, Ariz.).

One notable exception was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the winner of the $500,000 Ted Turner Tomorrow Award, the contest sponsored by the media mogul to find a "positive book about the future." Described as a series of philosophical conversations between a man and a great ape, the book will be co-published by Turner Publishing and Bantam. "To say this is like no other novel would be an understatement," a representative from Bantam told a packed room at the convention just after Ted Turner announced the winner.

And, of course, there is always that book about a team of Xerox salespeople in Cleveland (The Force by David Dorsey to be published by Random House). Who could copy that?

Margo Hammond is book editor of the St. Petersburg Times.