Scholarly 'Death of the Messiah' 1,608 pages and 20 years in the making

April 10, 1994|By Paul D. Colford | Paul D. Colford,Newsday

It doesn't get much better for an author and publisher when Newsweek bases a cover story on their new book and Time gives it generous attention in the same week. But considering Raymond E. Brown's weighty subject matter and hefty list price, will take more than great publicity to spur impressive sales. It will take time, and faith, both of which Doubleday professes to have in ample supply.

Father Brown's opus is "The Death of the Messiah" -- a two-volume, 1,608-page, scholarly study of Jesus Christ's Passion as it is related in the four New Testament gospels. Publication of the books, which took Father Brown 20 years to write, provided Holy Week copy for the two newsweeklies and newspapers around the country.

Newsweek praised his "stunning array of fresh insights into how the passion stories came into being and what -- scene by scene -- the four Evangelists really say about the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus."

But a price of $75 for a boxed set surely will deter all but the devout and the absolutely curious.

To be sure, despite the print attention that "Death of the Messiah" has earned, Doubleday's in-print total is downright meager -- 15,000 boxed sets.

However, Thomas Cahill, Doubleday's director of religious publishing, said he expects to sell a satisfying 100,000 copies eventually.

"Now, I wouldn't want to bet when exactly we'll reach 100,000, but that assumption is based on very real figures," Mr. Cahill added.

Father Brown, a widely respected New Testament scholar, previously wrote a two-volume commentary on John's gospel for Doubleday that has sold 150,000 copies.

According to Mr. Cahill, no form of scholarship is able to sell as widely as the biblical.

"There always has been interest in what the Bible is about," he added, "and there's a significant audience" -- evenly divided between well-educated readers with an interest in Scripture and the Christian clergy, many of whom seek inspiration for their sermons.

Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest who belongs to the Sulpician order, taught for many years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City before retiring to write at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.

After the Time and Newsweek stories ran, Father Brown reportedly declined invitations to visit the TV talk shows of Charlie Rose and other hosts because the dates conflicted with his priestly observance of Holy Week.

Although Father Brown is unlikely to become a household face, the excitement in religious and scholarly circles for his new work is sure to inspire those few publishers, such as Harper San

Francisco and Doubleday, that continue to produce spiritually minded books along with John Grisham thrillers and other commercial fare.

*

Attallah Shabazz was in the crowd when her father, Malcolm X, was assassinated in 1965.

Drawing on recollections of that day and of the emotional upheaval she and her mother went through afterward, Ms. Shabazz plans to write a memoir to be published by Bantam Books.

In a statement released this week by the publisher, Ms. Shabazz said: "I feel blessed with the opportunity to use this text as a vehicle to massage the heart, stimulate positive self-worth and encourage a better understanding and respect for people, our histories, the world around us and our constructive place in it."

A publication date has not yet been scheduled.

Reaching newsstands this week are three new magazines.

* Garden Design, the first offering from the new Meigher Communications in New York, is marketing itself to baby boomers, who the glossy bimonthly says are entering their "satisfaction years" and are discovering the joys of their own backyards. The publishing director is Joe Armstrong, who was publisher of Rolling Stone during the 1970s and later ran New York and New West magazines.

* Country Weekly, though published by the same people who turn out the sensational, dish-digging National Enquirer, offers an unsensationalized, People-like look at country-music stars, including cover boy Garth Brooks and Mary-Chapin Carpenter.

* The premier issue of Country Living Country Travels explores the Mendocino coastline, Deer Isle (off Maine), the east Texas of Lady Bird Johnson's childhood and other rustic locations befitting a spinoff of the highly successful Country Living magazine. Whether Hearst Magazines continues to publish Country Travels will depend in part on the response to the 250,000 copies now on the racks.

*

David Caruso, who plays the red-haired Det. John Kelly in TV's "NYPD Blue," has purchased the screen rights to James Dalessandro's "Bohemian Heart" apparently with an eye toward starring in a film version of the San Francisco story next year.

Mr. Dalessandro's first novel, which was published by St. Martin's Press last summer, presents Peekaboo Frankie Fagen, a motorcycle-riding detective who wears his hair long and speaks six languages. In the book, Fagen is called on to investigate a murder based on the 1978 slayings of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

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