(The Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1996)


Press kits from publishers tend to be as austere as a nun's nightgown.

Typically they consist of a blurb about the new book, biographical
material on the author and his or her photo, tucked into a utilitarian
cardboard folder. Once in a while, the publisher throws in some little
promotional item. The press kit for Janet Evanovich's last book, "Two
For the Dough," came with a purple fruit-shaped key holder, a visual
pun on the name of bounty-hunter heroine Stephanie Plum.

But the press kit for Robert  Crais'  new book, "Sunset Express," is a
veritable treasure trove of tschokes, including a spiffy black baseball
cap, "Sunset Express" pins and, my personal fave, a neon orange plastic
lizard. The gaudy reptile was immediately hung by its tail in a place of
honor in my kitchen.

It was the lizard that prompted me to phone  Crais'  publisher, Hyperion,
to  find out what was going on here.  Crais,  who lives in Sherman Oaks,
is a former Emmy-nominated TV writer whose mystery novels feature a
wisecracking Angeleno private eye named Elvis Cole. Cole is an unrepentant
smartass who likes women, children and cats, does tai chi on his deck in the
Hollywood Hills and has a daunting sidekick, Joe Pike, so laconic he makes
Spenser's buddy, Hawk, sound like a chatterbox.

The reason for my call was a suspicion, which Hyperion confirmed, that the
publisher was actually putting both thought and money (albeit money used to
buy plastic lizards) into marketing  Crais.  Talk to almost any writer and he
or she will launch, with no more prompting than the Ancient Mariner, into a
bitter tale about his or her last book, published only to disappear without a
gurgle into the vast sea of books issued and unpromoted every year. About
50,000 new titles appear annually, and the majority are left to languish and
die by the very houses that bring them into the world.

Since the first Cole book, "The Monkey's Raincoat," appeared in 1987 and
garnered an Edgar nomination as well as Anthony and Macavity awards,
Crais fans have been waiting for his books to take off the way so many less
deftly written mysteries have in recent years (you know whose they are).
Although Crais  doesn't say so, publisher indifference may be a factor.
Bantam, the publisher of the first four Elvis Cole novels, didn't even bother
to send Crais  on a book tour, which seems especially odd given that he is
both personable and still looks, at 42, like the guy everybody in high school
had a crush on.

But Hyperion, one of Disney's many branches, has big plans for Crais,
publisher Bob Miller makes clear. When the company started four years
ago, Miller says, it made a long-term commitment to transforming a carefully
chosen group of writers from cult favorites into brand-name authors. The first
person the company began grooming was James Lee Burke, Edgar-winning
author of a series of thrillers set in Louisiana featuring recovering alcoholic
Dave Robicheaux. Others whose careers are being cultivated by Hyperion--
all writers of suspense, because they come with a base of hard-core fans to
build on--include Laurence Shames, Edna Buchanan, Ridley Pearson and
T. Jefferson Parker.

 Miller said he learned of  Crais  through one of Hyperion's editors and its
publicity director, both of whom were big fans. What the publishing house
looks  for, Miller says, are "immensely charming authors with enormous
talent." No writers unwilling to chat nicely with the public and sign books
'til their hands cramp need apply. "We've found that touring is a critical piece
of the picture in building these authors," Miller says. For the current book,
Hyperion has sent Crais  on a 25-city tour. (He was in Minneapolis the day
I wrote this.)

As Miller explains, "The industry tends to shy away from building authors
over time." But Hyperion feels that these writers have the potential to become
major players and that investment in them now will pay off in the future. When
Crais  signed with them, he was selling fewer than 10,000 copies per book,
Miller says. Hyperion shoots for doubling sales with each new title. "Sunset
Express,"  Crais'  second book for the company, has already sold more than
30,000 copies.

One of the things the company does is spend money--about $ 150,000 to
promote "Sunset Express." The process began in January when lizards were
mailed to 1,200 bookstores. "We just wanted to get people wondering what
the heck it is," says Miller, explaining the rain of reptiles. More substantively,
the same bookstores received three advance copies of the book, instead of the
usual one, in hopes that more store staff would read it, like it and recommend it
to customers.

Hyperion takes a systems approach to building its writers. One aspect of the
process is, Miller explains, "to establish a look for each author." Hyperion has
come up with what it thinks of as a distinctive  Crais  look, which appears on
the covers of his books and on his promotional materials. Cole is wry and
ironic, Miller points out, and both the turtles on the cover of the previous
Cole novel, "Voodoo River," and the lizards on the current one reflect what
Miller terms "a wry use of animals." The neon colors are "hot L.A. colors."
In contrast, Burke is widely regarded as a literary stylist and has elegant covers.

Besides controlling the look of the books, Hyperion is committed to controlling
when they appear. The publisher started a paperback imprint so it could coordinate
the soft-cover publication of the author's previous hardback with the publication
of  the new one (with complementary covers, of course). Hyperion also tries to get
authors on a schedule that will maximize the impact of their books. Burke used to
publish in the spring. When Hyperion moved his publication date to early August,
when fewer new titles are flooding the market, Burke broke onto the New York
Times bestseller list for the first time. Now readers know that if this is August
they can expect a new Burke and the publication of the last title in paper.

Writers such as John Grisham are so famous their books all but sell themselves.
But Miller says it is enormously gratifying to nurture the career of a deserving
lesser-known writer and see the effort and commitment pay off in regularly rising

"We're doing this out of a long-term belief in the author," he says. "It's a leap of faith."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Hyperion has spent about $150,000 to promote
"Sunset Express,"
written by Robert  Crais.  The promotional materials include
hats and lizards--
the plastic animals were mailed to 1,200 bookstores in January. (NOT SHOWN)

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