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Secret’s out: ‘Da Vinci’ mania finally fading

Publishers, book stores notice a drop in demand for religious thrillers
/ Source: The Associated Press

It couldn't last forever, right? Simmered by three years of lawsuits, religious debates and conspiracy theories, brought to a boil in May by the Hollywood movie, the craze for all things "Da Vinci Code" is finally fading, publishers and booksellers agree.

"I would definitely say it's slowing down," Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley says. "Once everybody got past the movie, the whole thing peaked."

"The spring definitely was the hottest time for this kind of book," says editor Mark Tavani of Ballantine Books, which released Steve Berry's "The Templar Legacy," one of many "Da Vinci"-like novels to make best seller lists earlier this year. "It seems now that the wave has reached its end."

Dan Brown's conspiracy thriller, with its suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, came out in March 2003, has sold more than 60 million copies and produced a parade of critical scorn, church condemnation and (unsuccessful) allegations of ripping off other writers.

Not only did "The Da Vinci Code" keep selling, but the market for anything similar — whether spin-offs such as "Cracking the Da Vinci Code" or thrillers like "The Templar Legacy" — kept growing, too. It was a phenomenon that apparently peaked with the May 19 release of the "Da Vinci Code" film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. The movie was a box-office hit worldwide.

"`The Da Vinci Code' certainly created great opportunities for a number of authors to expand their readership, but in all likelihood we will not see a market like that again," says Allison Elsby, category manager of genre fiction for Borders and Waldenbooks.

"The Da Vinci Code" itself is still a best seller, in the top 5 on The New York Times' paperback fiction list, but no longer can a book simply be compared to Brown's and expect to catch on. Noting a drop in demand, Barnes & Noble is taking down the special display tables dedicated to "Da Vinci Code" games, puzzles and related books. Publishers also report a decline in the number of proposals that cite "Da Vinci" similarities.

"There was a point where I felt like every week I was getting something that mentioned `The Da Vinci Code,' and that has fallen off," says Mitch Hoffman, a senior editor at Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA that published Raymond Khoury's "The Last Templar," a best-selling novel that came out in January.

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Hoffman and others refer to a "maturing" of the market. They note that "The Da Vinci Code" didn't invent the religious/historical thriller, and they expect the genre to continue as it once did, with books failing or succeeding on their own, as opposed to being tied to the fortunes of "The Da Vinci Code."

"I think the best parallel is the rise of legal thrillers," Hoffman says. "Lawyers were writing thrillers before John Grisham and Scott Turow, but the perceived market coalesced in their wake. Over time, it's the authors who deliver the goods that readers come back to."

One sign of maturity: a reluctance to compare a book to "The Da Vinci Code." Barnes & Noble's Hensley notes a shift in the promotion for Brad Meltzer's "Book of Fate," a thriller about a young political aide coming out this fall.

During the annual booksellers convention, held about the time the movie was released, publisher Warner Books emphasized its "Da Vinci"-like elements: ancient Masonic symbols, a code devised by Thomas Jefferson. Now, Hensley says, Warner highlights the track record of Meltzer, author of such popular legal-political thrillers as "The Tenth Justice" and "The Millionaires."

"They're a smart publisher, so they're probably backing away from it," she says.

"I can't speak for our sales people, but I never compared it to `The Da Vinci Code,'" says Warner Books publisher Jamie Raab. "I've always thought of it as the next step in Brad's career. It involves a secret, but it's more political than religious."

A test for the current "Da Vinci" market will be Kathleen McGowan's "The Expected One," a speculative thriller about Mary Magdalene released this week with a substantial push from publisher Simon & Schuster and a special personal twist: The author hints that she is a descendent of Jesus and Mary.

"We could have put it out before the movie, but we decided to take our time," says Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone and Fireside, imprints of Simon & Schuster. "We think summertime is a great time for reading `The Expected One' and we feel we're marketing a very different kind of book, told from a woman's point of view."