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She can bag it, but "Sex' will still sell

We all know Madonna is no plain-brown-wrapper kind of gal. So it is symbolic that her "great literary work" _ titled Sex _ will be enveloped in a Mylar bag complete with a warning label when it hits bookstores from Tampa Bay to Tokyo on Oct. 21.

The shiny cover will protect the sizzling contents from curiosity seekers unless they shell out big bucks for the book.

As with everything the Material Girl seems to come in contact with, there's lots of hype about the exotic, erotic, expensive ($49.95) book. Even the FBI got into the pre-publication frenzy when a question of photographic piracy arose.

Assured of Sex's appeal, booksellers and distributors are betting on it being their hottest seller of the year.

Warner Books has ordered a staggering first printing of 835,000 copies _ half a million in the United States alone _ in six languages.

"It's the largest initial release of any illustrated book in publishing history," says Nicholas Callaway of Callaway Editions, the publishing house that is producing the book. For the covers, Callaway told Vanity Fair magazine, "we ordered three-quarters of a million pounds of aluminum. You can stamp a number on each one."

Callaway, who has produced two elegant coffeetable books on Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as last year's highly praised volume of Irving Penn's photography, had the job of mass producing 750,000 copies of Sex into looking like a handmade art book printed in five colors with several different kinds of paper. The volume is spiral bound, has 128 pages and is the sort of book "that ordinarily you might expect to see only 250 copies made," Callaway says.

As for opening the Mylar bag to get to the book, Callaway adds: "We wanted it to be an act of enteringbreaking and entering."

Madonna herself likens the bag to the "aluminum kind of stuff used on a potato chip sack or a condom . . . so you can't look at it in the store . . . you have to rip it open."

"We knew what we were buying (with Madonna)," says Warner Books publisher Nancy Nieman, who also edited Sex. By sealing the book in its Mylar cocoon and slapping the warning label on the front, Warner hopes to keep the book out of the eyes and hands of buyers younger than 18.

"It's going to be BIG," says Barbara Franzen of Miami, buyer for Southern Book Service, one of the largest book wholesalers in the South. Franzen would not divulge figures but said she has been swamped with orders and expects not to be able to get enough books to meet dealers' demands.

Vold Svekis, owner of Liberties in Boca Raton, has ordered 200 copies for his store. He sees Sex _ which is being touted as the "dirtiest coffeetable book ever" _ as a milestone in book publishing.

Svekis says he hasn't seen a copy of the book but envisions it as fitting in the evolution of American glamor, stardom and sexuality. He says he hasn't decided how he will market the book or whether to deal with returns.

Elizabeth Haslam, co-owner of Haslam's of St. Petersburg, does not share other vendors' enthusiasm. "We have ordered one copy, which we will keep in the back in case anyone asks for it. We are not censoring the book . . . it is just that we are not impressed with the concept," she says.

"We don't do a lot with pop stars when it comes to book sales. We will special-order the book, but we will not stock it," says Sally Wallace, one of the owners of Bayboro Books in downtown St. Petersburg.

Waldenbooks, with 1,150 stores in all 50 states, plans to check buyers' IDs, says Susan Arnold, the mega-chain's spokeswoman. The company has issued directives to stores (including 70 in Florida) about its policy, which is to comply with all local laws and ordinances in the display and sale of the book, Arnold says.

Mitchell Kaplan, who owns Books 'N Books stores in Miami Beach and Coral Gables, has placed an order for 250 copies of the book.

"I think it should be a very interesting situation when the presidential candidates are calling for family values, and the predicted best seller is Madonna's Sex," Kaplan says.

He envisions the book being a big seller in his area since so many of the pictures were shot there. Among them: Madonna's favorite photo, Nude-in-Public, which finds the pop diva hitchhiking on a Miami street, naked except for high heels and a handbag.

Warner also is tossing in a CD single with a remix of Erotica inside the packet. The video Erotica debuted on MTV at midnight Friday.

Even with the countdown to delivery just two weeks off, publisher Warner Books has drawn a secrecy barrier around Sex comparable to that of the U.S. government's privacy regarding the Stealth bomber.

Nieman, the spokeswoman who is fielding the pre-publication barrage from the press, says: "Warner Books has decreed that no copies will be available before the first printing of 500,000 is in the stores Oct. 21 in the United States, Japan and Europe, and they're sticking with it."

Time-Warner, the parent company of Warner Books, is no stranger to controversy, having produced Ice-T's Cop Killer and Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Nieman says she had insisted on only a few rules: "I told her: "No sex with children, no sex with animals, no sex with religious objects and no actual penetration. And this didn't seem to be a problem. . . . Some readers will be shocked. Some will be excited. Others will discover that their fantasies haven't gone anywhere close to the edge."

Vanity Fair published photographs of the Material Girl in the buff for its October issue. Vogue magazine devotes a cover and feature story to Madonna this month, and Sex gets another preview in this week's New York magazine cover story on Steven Meisel, the photographer who took more than 80,000 photos for the book project.

Michael Gross, who wrote the story on Meisel and who has seen 32 of the 128 pages of the book, comments: "Some pictures are sweet, especially the one of Madonna holding her breasts like a 12-year-old who has just discovered them. Others border on the medical. Is it sexy? Disgusting? Stupid? That will depend on the eye of the beholder."

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