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The Literator

WH Smith is no Wonderland

Whether the media outcry over A M Homes' novel The End of Alice will be sufficient to propel it into the best seller lists remains to be seen. If it does chart, it would seem reasonable to speculate that many of the buyers will be the the wrong sort of people buying it for all the wrong reasons. Had the NSPCC not made such a fuss, The End of Alice would have gone the way of much - probably most - new fiction: quietly, if not silently, to that knacker's yard of publishing, the remainder dealer.

On one count, at least, the record needs setting straight: WH Smith have not banned the book, as was widely reported. Rather, they took a purely commercial decision months ago (publishers' lists are presented at the chain's Swindon headquarters way ahead of publication) that Homes' novel was simply not one for their customers, who want mainstream fiction by Jilly and Jeffrey and Joanna and safe non-fiction by Delia and Michael. Moral grounds did not come into it. As a spokesman for the WHS said, "basically this title is not for our market".

The End of Alice will be available in Waterstone's, whose turnover of obscure fiction is second to none. Waterstone's remains - for the moment at least - part of the Smith empire, so to have taken the high moral ground on the one hand while raking in the cash with the other would have been hypocritical, to say the least. No doubt many independent booksellers in the Shires will also decline to stock it and some may even ban it as, no doubt, did many booksellers in the American Bible Belt. But WHS does not regard itself as a guardian of the nation's morals. Nor could it, given the magazines that reside on its top shelves.

Waterstone's Noble Gesture

Meanwhile, last month's announcement, under pressure of a poor performance and a takeover bid by former failed Smith employee Tim Waterstone, that the Waterstone's chain is to be demerged, is fuelling speculation that the move will provide US book-selling giant Barnes & Noble with just the sort of opening it is looking for.

The 106 stores are the jewel in Smith's increasingly tarnished crown, with sales of pounds 200m and operating profits of pounds 20m. B&N stores are glorious temples to books, providing a comfortable browsing environment and wide and deep discounting, and it has long been known that the chain wishes to expand into the UK market. Earlier this year, a B&N team were reported to be prospecting possible sites. But a major start-up from scratch was always going to be difficult and a few weeks ago B&N's rivals, Borders, part of the K-Mart group, upped the ante by buying Books, etc.

Barnes & Noble will not want to be outdone because, back home in the US, competition is fierce. When Borders advertised a major author, signing in their magnificent World Trade Center store, B&N upstaged them by running a full-page ad in the New York Times offering the book at a 50 per cent discount. Things could get really interesting ...

Horror in advance

A few weeks ago, Penguin US stomped up around $100m for a Tom Clancy package that included world rights on several books and an interactive games initiative. Now one of the world's most prolific authors, the famously reclusive Stephen King, is reportedly asking $17m for American rights to just one novel, working title: The Bag of Bones. After negotiations with King's long-time publisher, one Penguin US, broke down, his agent Arthur Greene began circulating the 1000-page manuscript to various publishers.

It seems that although King sells well - Desperation shipped 1,542,077 copies in the US; The Regulators, sold under the name of King's "twin" Richard Bachman, some 1,200,000 - he doesn't sell that well. John Grisham's The Runaway Jury sold 2,775,000 and Clancy's Executive Orders 2,371,602, for example. King earned $35m for his last three-novel contract with Penguin. At $17m for one, it simply doesn't add up.

Still, other publishers seem prepared to shell out. Grove Atlantic are reportedly about to come up with "a creative offer", while Bantam Doubleday Dell - who last year paid over the odds to acquire Dean Koontz from Knopf - are also working on the back of envelopes. Meanwhile, king's UK publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, look on with bated breath.

Tolkien treat

Fans of J R R Tolkien are in for a real treat, for in January HarperCollins are publishing a previously unpublished novella, Roverandom. Dating from 1925 and written for J R R's son Michael, who had just lost his dog on Filey beach during a family holiday, the book tells the story of Rover, a dog turned into a toy by a wizard and then transported to the moon along the path of light it makes shining over the sea. Giving him wings, the man in the moon renames him Roverandom and he enjoys a series of big adventures before returning to the wizard and asking him to undo the spell.

The book's existence has long been known about by publishers, but the family did not want to cash in on the Tolkien name. Now, with the author's centenary behind them and Lord of the Rings named "Book of the Century", they agreed that the time was right.

Roverandom will be published as a pounds l2.99 hardback featuring five "illustrations by Tolkien himself and an introduction by Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond, authors of J R R Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.

Write for Life

Aspiring writers have a chance to win pounds 2,000 and have their work critiqued by Alan Coren and John Mortimer among others. "Write for Life" is all part of the Cancer Research Campaign's 75th anniversary celebrations and is the idea of Worthing Steyne Inner Wheel.

Stories should be between 1000 and 2000 words, poems no more than 40 lines, and entrants can write on any subject. The closing date is 28 February and entries cost pounds 5.

Application forms from Cancer Research Campaign Shops nationwide, or call 0171-224 1333.