Simon & Schuster's Nancy Reagan: How Big A Blockbuster?

Huge hype is bringing huge sales--but maybe not huge profits

Credit Kitty Kelley for knowing her audience. His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra splattered mud all over the reputation of one of America's most beloved entertainers. But her 1986 book topped The New York Times best-seller list for two months. Kelley's new expose is no less sensational. Nancy Reagan, The Unauthorized Biography accuses the former First Lady of drug use and meddling in White House policy. It even says she had a long affair with Sinatra--romantic White House lunches, that sort of thing.

At $24.95 a copy, people can't soak up the sleaze fast enough. The book's publisher, Simon & Schuster Inc., a subsidiary of Paramount Communications Inc., says it shipped its entire first printing of 600,000 copies within two days of its Apr. 8 release. It has added an extra printing of 175,000 copies to fill reorders. Says Simon & Schuster Vice-President Jack McKeown: "This book is outpacing anything in recent memory, including Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses."

McKeown had better hope the frenzy persists. Simon & Schuster is betting big that readers will want to rattle the skeletons in the Reagans' closet. The former President said in a terse statement that the book is filled with "flagrant and absurd falsehoods." Accurate or no, this much about the book is indisputable: Nancy Reagan must be a runaway best-seller if it's to turn a profit.

TOUGH MATH. The economics of blockbuster bookselling are risky. Here's how the figures work, according to several industry rivals: Simon & Schuster paid Kelley a $3.5 million advance. Production and marketing costs could total an additional $2 million. To cover that, readers must buy roughly 550,000 copies from bookstores, which pay the publisher about $10 a copy. On top of that, of course, S&S will reap profits from the paperback and other ancillary rights.

The publisher should break even relatively easily. It has already issued 775,000 copies and plans another printing. Bookstores routinely return unsold 30% of the books they order, and such a return rate is probable even for this dynamite book. But that means S&S has to ship only 10,000 more copies to break even on the hardback.

Still, making a fat profit won't be a cinch. Although Nancy Reagan was launched with huge publicity, publishers predict sales will decline once the media glare fades. "The sales in the first week have been remarkable," says Peter Osnos, publisher of Times Books, a Random House Inc. imprint. "But publishers always have to hold their breath to see if a book has staying power."

Simon & Schuster is confident Nancy Reagan will continue to sell briskly. McKeown points out that it has started stronger than Kelley's Sinatra biography. The company could use a smash hit: It stands to lose millions on another pricey project--Ronald Reagan's memoirs. That book, An American Life: The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan, isn't selling well enough to recoup Reagan's $5 million advance. Trade journal Publishers Weekly says it was the ninth-best-selling nonfiction book of 1990, with gross sales of about 375,000 copies. But industry execs say Simon & Schuster needed to sell far more than that to break even. McKeown won't comment on sales, but he says: "We're proud of the job we did with it."

To be sure, Kelley's acid etching is selling far faster. Waldenbooks Inc., the nation's largest bookstore chain, estimated sales at 40,000 copies in the first week. And browsers at the Doubleday shop on New York's Fifth Avenue were another good sign. Most say the appetite for dirt on Nancy Reagan will linger after the first lust subsides. Then again, they may have been victims of subliminal advertising: From the store's stereo system came the unmistakable baritone of Frank Sinatra. He was singing The Way You Look Tonight.

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