Marketing books: Can a new dress make 'A Civil Action' a blockbuster?

February 11, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Random House has come upon a truth: You do judge a book by its cover. On that principle, this venerable of American publishing has relaunched its sale of "A Civil Action," by Jonathan Harr (Random House. 500 pages. $25).

That book went to market on Sept. 8, last year, with an entire poodle-and-Shetland show of publishing promotion. Then came great reviews, nomination for the National Book Award. Booksellers loved it and displayed it prominently.

It didn't fall flat, but it didn't leap or soar either. Gloom settled on the gables of Random House. Then Harry Evans, its redoubtable publisher, indicted the dust-jacket as the culprit. Nobody I have talked to actually remembers Mr. Evans keening ""You must judge a book by its cover," but quickly everybody gathered behind the idea.

This was mid-November. Andy Carpenter, the head of the design department and the man who had done the original cover, came up with the new one.

Both are reproduced here, the first on the left, a subdued, judicial-looking, classic form. Its background is a warm, creamy parchment, with no words but title and author's name. The new cover is in dark brown-to-black earth tones, a hammering gavel in a multiple-image blur depicting fierce motion. New words: ""Compelling - John Grisham" and ""A real-life legal thriller" and ""Best book of the year - Entertainment Weekly."

No cleavage, but even without it, blurbery knows no higher key.

Random House recognized booksellers were far too busy in the pre-Christmas rush to take old dust-covers off books on hand and replace them, so they prepared the relaunch for Jan. 15 and sent out some 50,000 of the covers. By then a total of 108,000 copies of the book were in print, a very respectable number but not a blockbuster.

It's the nature of book publishing that publishers have only very imprecise ideas of how many books are sold until months later. Still, at the end of the first full week in its new dress, Random House's key market indicators suggested sales had doubled. A best-seller? Still not yet. But hopes are high. Watch the lists.

Should it be?

By my judgment, yes - and more. It is a superb book, the painful, gripping, ecstatic, agonizing story of a lawsuit charging W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods with environmental neglects that are responsible for multiple deaths and miseries.

Mr. Harr's narrative moves with force and velocity that is accomplished only by making technique invisible. He is a superb reporter. Details build so convincingly that time and again I found myself silently congratulating the author of this novel for authenticity. Each time, I had to throw myself back to the realization that this is a nonfiction book.

But it is, and a powerful lesson as well as a compelling tale. There are two major by products:

If there is any doubt in your mind about the danger of even the controlled release of industrial chemicals into the atmosphere, water or land, this book will cure you. The relentless accumulation of data builds quietly to an explosion of comprehension. Lots of stuff that has been used for decades or even centuries is truly poisonous.

It is a cure for O.J. immersion. Although this is a civil case, a plaintiff's tort action, and the judge is far from perfect, the clarity and seriousness with which the adjudication evolves in the book meticulous and convincing.

That gives the law back to the lawyers, God help us. But in doing so it takes it from the soaps and the 30-second trivializers.

And so the book proceeds, as a whole, to one of the deeper truths: obsession, bordering on possession. I would and do argue that obsession is responsible for the vast preponderance of the really good things that are achieved by humankind (and no small proportion of the really bad things as well). But it cannot be argued that the acts achieved by obsession are akin to those achieved by cool and patient reason. That truth is the core of this book.

If ever you have wondered why so many people distrust the law and detest lawyers, read this book. You will know. If ever you have been puzzled why so many people worship the law and look to its practice for life's most intense promise of ecstasy, read this book. You will understand.

Not simple. Rich and wondrous. Buy the book, covered or stark naked. Judge for yourself.

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