OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Who would have thought that the hottest consumer product in America would be the lowly, low-tech book?

As the nation heads into the 4 July holiday weekend, shoppers are stocking up on books instead of pricey electronic gadgets, must-have fashions or do-it-yourself projects such as the Cordiant Communications Group Disassembly Kit. It's a trend that just might help shake Madison Avenue out of its present doldrums.

Three books are leading the charge in a rush to reading that's so newsworthy it made headlines in USA Today, the self-styled Nation's Newspaper, which declared: "Summer reading is so in style."

One of the blockbuster books is, of course, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling, which might as well be retitled Harry Potter and the Order of 9.3 Million Copies, after the latest total for the record-breaking press run by the US publisher Scholastic.

The second megabook is Living History by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady, with 1.6 million copies in print, almost 600,000 of them sold in the first week. That was good enough, according to its publisher, Simon & Schuster, to qualify as the country's fastest-selling non-fiction title ever. (Pause here to insert knee-jerk japes from conservative readers wondering why it isn't on the fiction list.)

The third superseller is a golden oldie, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, which is making a sudden, unexpected comeback because the talkshow host Oprah Winfrey picked it as the first tome to be read in the revival of her TV book club. Originally published in 1952, East of Eden had been selling about 40,000 to 50,000 copies annually. Now, since it became what full-page newspaper ads boast is "the book that brought Oprah's Book Club back", a new special edition is being shipped to stores with four printings so far, totalling more than one million copies.

What do those three women and their almost 12 million books say to advertisers and agencies? For one thing, perhaps the old saying about no-one ever going broke underestimating the taste of the American public needs to be revisited. Summer once was considered the domain of easy-to-read "beach books", with the weighty entries reserved for the fall, but the success of these three hefty volumes suggests challenging the conventional wisdom may be in order.

Another lesson that may be learned is the benefits of surfing a tidal wave instead of madly paddling away from it. Other publishers who sought to capitalise on the store traffic generated by consumers seeking the three biggie books are said to be thriving. Some ads even advised adults bringing Harry home to the kiddies to compile shopping lists of "books for grown-ups".

Indeed, the stampede to buy Phoenix actually buoyed national retail sales of all types because it was being sold by discount, department and toy stores as well as bookstores. All US chain stores open at least a year reported a sales gain of 2 per cent from the same week last year.

No wonder one nationally syndicated editorial cartoon showed Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, saying: "We need to encourage more consumer spending," then visiting a bookstore where Rowling was signing copies of Phoenix to ask: "Can you finish the sixth one by next week?"

Never mind "Where's the beef?" It's "Where's the book?"

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