THERE'S apparently no question, this season, as to who are the two most popular authors in the Washington area. Antonia Fraser and Strobe Talbott win hands down, with Lee Iacocca and Studs Terkel lagging just a bit behind. This news should help light up the tree on New York's East 50th Street, where Random House is situated at the corner of Third Avenue: three of these four titles come under its corporate umbrella, which covers Knopf and Pantheon.
The Weaker Vessel, Fraser's study of women in 17th-century England, and Talbott's Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control are both Knopf releases, while Terkel's "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II is from Pantheon. Iacocca: An Autobiography, written with William Novak, was published by Bantam, making the subject odd man out in this quartet as well as in Detroit.
On the art book side of things, even with its budget-crunching cover price of $95, Pierre Schneider's Matisse is the clear winner. A problem, though, is not enough copies of it to go around. "If I had them I could sell them," notes a somewhat surprised Philip Levy, owner of Georgetown's Bridge Street Books, and the same attitude is echoed around town. "It's amazing," says buyer- manager Maria Quintana at Calliope in Cleveland Park, "it's one of those rare books where cost doesn't seem to be a deterrent." At Globe Bookstore, buyer Bob Babbitz boasts that he "managed with inside information to track down a small supply" and then sold two in one day.
From Rizzoli, Matisse's publisher, the word is that their initial stock of 6,500 books, in fact, was gone before Thanksgiving, the official pub date. "I've heard a rumor that we're getting 500 copies flown in from Switzerland, where it's printed, before Christmas," says publicity director Sherrie Murphy, sounding pleased to be shepherding such a success. "And we'll have 3,000 more in February. After all, it was 14 years in preparation and the entire art world's been waiting for it!"
However, a seeming natural for Christmas, E. T. A. Hoffman's Nutcracker (Crown), with its new translation by Ralph Manheim and Maurice Sendak pictures, isn't doing as well as might be expected -- at least not locally. It's moving, according to store personnel, but not so fast as to jam the cash register. Meanwhile, several booksellers, like Helen Ross, owner of Alexandria's Ampersand, cite their personal preference for another version of the same tale, the Lisbeth Zwerger-illustrated one from Alphabet Press in Boston.
This points up another important factor of the holiday book scene: how bookstore staffs guide the glassy-eyed shoppers in the direction of certain selections. At Politics & Prose on upper Connecticut Avenue, for example, co-owner Carla Cohen is recommending and selling A.B. Yehoshua's A Late Divorce, a Doubleday novel from earlier in the year. And Philip Levy is gently pushing Sarah Phillips by Andrea Lee (Random House) because it stands out, he thinks, in a season "where there's so little good fiction." For Maria Quintana, it's a first novel, This Place, by Andrea Freud Lowenstein (Pandora Press), "about four women all involved with a woman's prison."
A favorite of Jim Tenney, senior buyer at The Book Annex, is Robert Manson Myers' newly reissued spoof From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf: An Astounding and Wholly Unauthorized History of English Literature (University of Illinois). "It's great satire and makes a good stocking stuffer," says Tenney, mentioning too that he's into his second 100-copy order of The English Flower Garden by William Robinson (A Ngaere Macray Book/The Amaryllis Press). The Edna O'Brien tory collection, A Fanatic Heart (Farrar Straus Giroux) is also doing well at The Book Annex, along with Susan Cheever's memoir of her father, Home Before Dark (Houghton Mifflin).
On Capitol Hill, David Baldwin of Trover Books describes 1984 shoppers as "more list-specific" -- coming in and knowing what they want before he can tell them. One (as he terms it) "off the wall" title that's selling briskly there falls into the humor category, The World's 72 Toughest Golf Holes by Tom Hepburn and Selwyn Jacobson (Price/Stern/Sloan), while Howard Baker's Washington, remaindered at $9.98, is also proving irresistible to many. In addition, at Trover The Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo, a Random House title of last April, is starting to pick up steam again.
Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin (Atheneum) is frequently cited by stores from every part of the region, as are Mario Puzo's The Sicilian (Linden), John Jakes' Love and War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) and the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman (Viking). Available in both cloth and trade paper, The Best American Short Stories 1984, edited by John Updike with Shannon Ravenel (HM), also gets mentioned by many shops. A real sleeper, though, is a work of nonfiction by novelist Evan Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn (North Point). Just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, the book has caught Washington booksellers off guard with its popularity.
"It's my Cabbage Patch Doll," laughs Cari Johnson, owner of Books Unlimited in Arlington. "I'm surprised by the number of people coming in who're familiar with Evan Connell's reputation." Other titles she's watched get a piece of the action include Dan Jenkins' Life Its Ownself (Simon and Schuster), James Grady's A Runner in the Streets (Macmillan) -- "a quiet seller, not in handfuls" -- and One Hundred One Things to Do with a Baby by Jan Ormerod (Lothrop Lee & Shepard). A locally produced children's Hanukah story, The Odd Potato by Eileen Bluestone Sherman (from Kar-Ben Copies, located in Rockville), which Johnson says "makes us all cry," is winning fans at Books Unlimited, too.
"Not much hardcover fiction sells here," says David Parrish of The Pentagon Book Store. What he sees being purchased over and over is Deadly Gambits and Jim and Sybil Stockdale's In Love and War: The Story of a Family's Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War (Harper & Row). "Our biggest book is Augustine's Laws." A guide to the defense business by Norman Augustine, it's just out in a revised edition from the American Institute of Aeronautics. A recent party at Francis Scott Key Books in Georgetown has made a store best seller out of Preston Bruce and Katherine Johnson's juvenile From the Door of the White House (Lothrop), while Galina: A Russian Story (HBJ) by diva Galina Vishnevskaya is much in demand for them.
At The Maryland Book Exchange, trade buyer Bernie Brew calls the HBJ biography of Eleanora Duse by William Weaver (Duse) a leading contender, as is the Penguin paperback of David K. Shipler's Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams. He, like several of his peers, notes constant demand for Richard Restak's The Brain (Bantam). And another offering of a physiological nature, The Facts of Life pop-up by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham (Viking) is racking up substantial area sales. In Ashton, Maryland, at Cricket Book Shop, co-owner Mary Miller, after terming the Antonia Fraser "hard to keep in stock," calls attention to Humans by Mike Dowdall and Pat Welch (S&S). "It's like Gnomes, only it's about people. Every time we put it face out, customers think it's a roar and buy it."
And so it goes: another Christmas, with some looking, some thinking, an occasional roar and the usual amount of shelling -- and selling -- out.