Two years ago this month, Doubleday published a historical thriller with an announced first printing of 85,000 and high hopes that a little-known writer named Dan Brown would catch on with the general public.
“We surely expected to have a huge success, but I don’t think anyone dreamed it would become a historic publication,” says Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group.
If the “Harry Potter” books stand as the essential popular read for young people, then “The Da Vinci Code” has captured the crown for grown-ups. A word-of-mouth sensation from the moment it came out, Brown’s controversial mix of storytelling and speculation remains high on best-seller lists even as it begins its third year since publication.
Twenty-five million books, in 44 languages, are in print worldwide and no end is in sight. Booksellers expect “The Da Vinci Code” to remain a best seller well into 2005. A planned film version by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) should bring in even more readers. And at a time when consumers are supposedly minding their budgets, sales for the $24.95 hardcover have been so good that Doubleday still has set no date for a paperback.
“It’s been our No. 1 fiction book for two years in a row, and I can’t remember another time that happened,” said Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble Inc. “People come into our store all the time and ask for it or ask for books that are like it.”
“We’re expecting it to be among our top sellers into midsummer, and the only reason I’m not predicting anything beyond that is that I haven’t looked that far,” says Mike Spinozzi, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Borders Group Inc.
Thanks to “The Da Vinci Code,” about the only books that seem able to keep up are Brown’s previous novels. “Deception Point,” first released in 2001, now has 3.7 million copies in print, according to Simon & Schuster, Brown’s previous publisher. “Angels and Demons,” published in 2000 and featuring “Da Vinci” protagonist Robert Langdon, has more than 8 million copies in print. A special illustrated edition of “The Da Vinci Code” has more than 900,000 copies in print. An illustrated “Angels and Demons” is coming this spring.
Mystery in ParisAs millions now know, “The Da Vinci Code” begins with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris. As he is dying, he realizes he is the only person left to pass on an important secret. Later that night, a visitor from the French equivalent of the FBI awakens Langdon, a Harvard University professor visiting Paris, summoning him to the Louvre. Langdon, who studies symbols, had an appointment with Sauniere, but the curator never showed up.
Sauniere is found naked, arms and legs outstretched. Drawn on his chest in his own blood is a five-pointed star. Langdon figures out that Sauniere is positioned like “The Vitruvian Man,” Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous sketch. He also recalls that the curator was a scholar of all things Leonardo, and that Leonardo himself liked to hide messages in his art.
More clues are uncovered as Langdon is led to the “Mona Lisa,” the “Madonna of the Rocks” and “The Last Supper.” He recalls that Leonardo was part of a brotherhood that guarded an ancient secret dealing with the quest for the Holy Grail and the story of Jesus Christ. Later, Langdon discovers that Sauniere was Leonardo’s modern-day counterpart.
The unprecedented success of “The Da Vinci Code” has been helped by wide access, with the book on sale everywhere from Wal-Mart to airports to supermarkets, often proving more popular than the mass market paperbacks available at the same outlets.
“The Da Vinci Code” has also thrived during a time when both literary and commercial novels struggled, when a tight economy, competition from other media and election-year tensions drove the public to nonfiction works or away from books altogether. Publishers and booksellers say Brown’s novel has worked by combining narrative excitement and provocative — and disputed — historical detail.
“It just proves that people want more substance in their books. They like a good, meaty read,” says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, chairman of the Time Warner Book Group.
“I can tell you that it’s helped a lot of books,” says Jonathan Karp, editor in chief of the Random House Publishing Group. “We put a novel out around the same time, (Matthew Pearl’s) ‘The Dante Club,’ that he (Brown) praised. We’ve sold a half a million copies of that book and I have to think at least part of that is thanks to the Dan Brown quote.”
Several Da Vinci-like novels — historical thrillers with a code to crack — are expected this year. Jon Fasman’s “The Geographer” is a suspense novel featuring a 12th-century Spanish-Muslim philosopher. James Rollins’ “Map of Bones” also returns to the 12th century and centers on a search for holy relics. Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian,” one of the year’s most anticipated books, follows a young woman’s quest for the historical Dracula.
A spark of controversyBrown’s research and speculations have both fascinated and enraged. The novel’s contentious allegations — namely, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a bloodline — have been dismissed by historians and theologians and provoked unprecedented protest among Roman Catholic and Protestant conservatives, who claimed that Brown’s characters inaccurately malign Christianity.
Brown’s book has been answered by a wave of anti-“Da Vinci” books, including “The Da Vinci Hoax,” “De-Coding Da Vinci” and “Truth and Fiction in ‘The Da Vinci Code.”’ Art experts and conservative clerics have been holding an unusual “trial” in Leonardo da Vinci’s hometown, in Vinci, just outside of Florence, Italy. Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a Leonardo museum, has claimed he will produce photographs and documents as evidence of the mistakes and historical inaccuracies contained in Brown’s best seller.
When the book isn’t being attacked, it’s being exploited. Spin-offs include “Cracking ‘The Da Vinci Code,”’ “Breaking ‘The Da Vinci Code”’ and “Solving ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Mystery.” Brown’s mystical thriller has inspired a mini-industry in European travel, with enthralled readers touring the locations in its plot to unravel its enigmas. A baker in Portland, Maine, who lost nearly half of his customers to the low-carb craze, has devised an Atkins alternative called the “Da Vinci Diet” that he hopes will bring people back to bread.
While readers and booksellers crave Brown’s next Langdon thriller, “The Solomon Key,” the author apparently is no hurry. According to Doubleday, Brown is simply at his home in rural New Hampshire “researching and writing his next novel.”
It’s all a mystery. No publication date has been planned and Doubleday’s Rubin even declined to say whether he had discussed the book with Brown on the telephone.