Will The Lost Symbol Kill Book Publishing?

Records were meant to be broken and the report that Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol sold 1 million books on the day of publication and over 2 million worldwide in the first week on sale called to mind Usain Bolt's amazing record in the 100m run. Publishers like to say that the book business is more like a marathon than a sprint but Brown's first weeks sales feel like a helluva sprint to me.

Of course, JK Rowling's last Harry Potter book still holds the record with over 8.5 million sold on the first day and 11.5 million copies sold in the first 10 days in the US alone .

Pundits like to opine that blockbusters are really bad for the book business.

I think differently. I don't think that blockbusters kill other books -- I think they nurture them.

In 1981 Thomas Whiteside wrote an article for The New Yorker titled "The Blockbuster Complex : Conglomerates, Show Business and Book Publishing". His thesis was that publishing which once was host to a huge array of subjects and opinions was going to be ground into the ground by conglomerate money grubbing and directives to only publish books with immense sales potential. His prime example was a first novel called Scruples by Judith Krantz that my company Crown Publishers had propelled onto the best seller list. Whiteside worried that blockbusters like Scruples were going to lead to all publishers putting their eggs in big baskets and ceasing to publish the wide variety of "worthy" titles that he saw as adding to the general culture. His villains were corporate marketing people and since I was Marketing Director of Crown at the time, I took it personally.

The fact that Crown was an independent company, not part of a conglomerate or that we used some of the profits from Scruples to publish Jonathan Kozol's prize winning Rachel and Her Children and other "worthy" books a few years later did not enter into Whiteside's thinking. Frankly, Crown learned a lot about making books big and that helped us publish better over the next decades. Crown was eventually acquired by Random House later in the decade exactly because Random saw we knew how to make books sell. Crown is still taking chances on lots of interesting books, including publishing Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father in 1995 when he was a little known US Senator.

This year over 400,000 new titles will be published in the US. Fewer than 1% will become best-sellers but many will find satisfied readers. There are more titles being published every year and blockbusters will help pay for a lot of "worthy" research and development by publishing companies.

Knopf-Doubleday, publisher of Mr. Brown, will now have more dollars to continue to publish poetry, first novels, literary biographies and even cookbooks that like Julia Child's may top the best-seller list 50 years after they are released.

And someday someone will sell 10 million books on publication day and someone else will break Usain St. Leo Bolt's record in the 100m dash and we should all find that inspiring.