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Colin Powell's Book Tour Or Is It A Whistle Stop?

News: Analysis & Commentary: MARKETING


The publishing world is synchronizing watches, waiting for Colin L. Powell's new offensive to begin. No, not Desert Storm II. It's the retired army general's national book blitz.

In mid-September, the hero of the Persian Gulf war will launch a campaign to sell more than a million copies of his memoirs, My American Journey. If the tour lives up to megahyped expectations, Powell could launch a budding political career, maybe even a Presidential bid. But even if he doesn't run, Powell will help his publisher, Random House Inc., win a $6.5 million gamble. That's the reported advance the publishing giant paid the general for his rags-to-battle-ribbons saga. Random House's planned first printing: 950,000 copies, to be sold at $25.95 each.

TAPES, TOO. Industry sources speculate that Random House will have to sell at least 1.5 million hardback copies in the U.S. to turn a profit. That's an ambitious target. But Random House insists the book will earn back its advance at 1 million copies because of revenue from spinoff deals. Time magazine is paying upwards of $175,000 for serial rights, the Book of the Month Club plans to make it a main selection, and publishers in six other countries have signed deals worth about $1 million. Random House itself will market the audiotape version. "We're pulling out all the stops," says Random House CEO Alberto Vitale.

Precedents for the book bode well. The other hero of the gulf war, Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, sold 1 million hardback copies of his 1993 memoirs--for which he received $5 million. In comparison, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's book To Renew America, published by HarperCollins, is in its sixth printing--with 665,000 copies off the presses. Powell's epic "is going to drown Newt," predicts A. David Schwartz, president of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee. Booksellers nationwide are scrambling to stock their shelves. "We're expecting it to be a best-seller," says Robert J. Wietrak, merchandising vice-president for Barnes & Noble Inc., a 1,000-store chain.

Random House's hopes to ensure that by giving the Powell opus maximum hype. Its campaign includes saturation coverage of Powell on television, including interviews with Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Jay Leno, and Larry King. "It's the dream tour," gushes Random House publicity director Ivan Held. Print ads will appear in publications ranging from The New York Times to Essence magazine to Army Times. The unusual mix reflects Powell's enormous appeal across racial, economic, and cultural lines.

The five-week frenzied tour begins on Sept. 16 with Powell signing copies at his neighborhood Crown Books store in McLean, Va. His 20-city route includes outlets as diverse as Seattle's hip Elliott Bay Book Co. and a PriceCostco Inc. discount warehouse in Orange County, Calif. At least three African-American bookstores, including Vertigo Books in Washington, will be on the tour. Random House made stores order at least 2,000 copies--an extraordinarily large number--to land a personal Powell appearance.

The key selling point: Powell's mystique and a national guessing game about whether one of the country's most popular figures has any designs on the White House. The retired general has never declared his party affiliation, much less discussed his political views or ambitions since retiring as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993. And Random House is making sure any political answers revealed in the book are kept secret until the publication date. Advance copies have been severely restricted, and reviewers have signed nondisclosure forms. "I almost had to sign in blood not to give away details," says one reviewer.

All the attention has Powell's political backers in a euphoric mood. They say the tour couldn't be a better dress rehearsal for a Presidential campaign. W. Ronald Evans, a spokesman for the Exploratory Draft Powell Committee for President, in Washington, says volunteers will follow the tour with the aim of collecting a million signatures endorsing a Powell Presidential bid. "This gives us the impetus we need," he says.

AGENDA BENDER? But several Powell associates say they don't believe the retired general has the lust for public office needed to survive a grueling Presidential bid. Others speculate that his most direct route to the White House, as a Vice-Presidential candidate with GOP front-runner Bob Dole (R-Kan.), is out of the question. "Let's face it: He'd be signing onto someone else's agenda for four years," says Retired Admiral David E. Jeremiah, who served with Powell as vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. J. Bruce Llewellyn, chairman of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., and Powell's cousin, agrees: "I don't think he'd do it."

Will he or won't he? Only Powell knows for sure. But with millions at stake, Random House isn't about to reveal the ending early. The intrigue is the best marketing tool it's got.

Book Blitz

The planned publicity campaign for Colin Powell's new autobiography,

My American Journey

SEPT. 11 Time magazine will issue a lengthy excerpt of Powell's book.

SEPT. 15 Barbara Walters plans a one-hour special on Powell's story.

SEPT. 16 Powell launches his 20-city tour, starting in his neighborhood Crown Books store in McLean, Va.

SEPT. 17 Parade magazine schedules a cover story on Powell.

SEPT. 18 NBC's Today show with Katie Couric kicks off a three-day Powell special. CNN's Larry King Live also plans a Powell interview.

DATA: RANDOM HOUSE INC.By Mary Beth Regan in Washington

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