Hey, if Tony's reading it, it's got to be good

May 13, 2001|By Boston Globe

NEW YORK -- Oprah Winfrey's Book Club has some competition. The unlikely source: Tony Soprano.

On the April 15 episode of "The Sopranos," the HBO hit show about a Mafia family, Tony said he had been reading Sun-tzu's "The Art of War," and finding it useful. He repeated the author's name April 22.

Almost instantly, the book -- a 2,500-year-old treatise on military strategy by a semi-mythical Chinese warrior -- started selling like gangbusters.

Oxford University Press, which has been publishing the book since 1963, normally sells a few hundred copies a week. By the end of April, it had sold 14,000--- every copy in stock -- and has gone back to the printers to order 25,000 more.

Westview Press, a small academic publishing house in Boulder, Colo., puts out an edition of Sun-tzu's tome. It's one of the company's three most popular books, meaning it sells about 2,500 a month. Since the mention on "The Sopranos" it too has sold out -- 12,000 copies' worth -- and ordered an emergency reprint.

At one point in the past few weeks, Amazon.com cited "The Art of War" as the No. 1 best-seller in Bergenfield, N.J. -- the heart of Soprano territory. It's still No. 4 in Union City, N.J., No. 6 in Bayonne, and a more-than-respectable No. 57 nationwide.

"No question, the spurt is entirely because of 'The Sopranos,' " says Sara Leopold, publicity director for Oxford Press in New York.

True, Tony is not yet in the same league as Oprah. When Oprah endorses a book, she boosts sales by hundreds of thousands of copies. Then again, Tony is a fictitious character, and one not known for great literary judgment.

HBO publicists insist there was nothing preplanned about this publicity. The cable network airs no commercials, and does no deliberate product placement. Nor did the book's publishers know the plug was coming.

"It was a total surprise," Leopold says. "I heard the book mentioned, and jumped on it."

A few days later, Oxford placed a small ad for the book in the New York Times. The text: "Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun-tzu taught him how. The Art of War. The book for bosses."

Ralph D. Sawyer, a specialist in Chinese military history, who translated and wrote the commentary for the Westview edition of "Art of War," finds Sun-tzu and Soprano a plausible match.

"Sun-tzu was writing in a time of great internecine warfare," Sawyer says. "He comes up with a very efficient view of ruthless warfare. He's concerned with all the issues of command and control, how to unify the subordinates behind the commander's intentions. The warriors were facing multiple enemies. You had to know how to be victorious on one front without being exhausted for another front.

"When you think about it," Sawyer adds, "it sounds like the dons in Jersey fighting over turf."

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