"Marley was dead, to begin with."

If you say that's the opening line of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," you're thinking like a reader. If you say that's the opening salvo in a perennial publishing war that has escalated beyond all belief this year, now you're thinking like a publisher.

Book purveyors are banging into each other like liquored-up elves, hoping to discover the next Dickens. They are hyping a handful of Christmas offerings from mega-selling authors -- including "Skipping Christmas" by John Grisham, "The Christmas Train" by David Baldacci, "Visions of Sugar Plums: A Stephanie Plum Holiday Novel" by Janet Evanovich and "Esther's Gift: A Mitford Christmas Story" by Jan Karon -- in hopes that they'll become longtime and lucrative Christmas traditions.

Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly says of the trend, "This is brand new." Certain children's books, such as "The Night Before Christmas," have always fared well. And other books, particularly classroom favorites like "The Catcher in the Rye," ping onto the bestseller charts around the same time each year.

But the notion of a contemporary popular writer cranking out a Christmas story is, Milliot says, "definitely unusual." Can titles like "Have Yourself a Bodice-Ripping Christmas" by Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy's "Nuclear Christmas" be far behind?

After all, it's the season for chestnuts. The London theaters have been offering holiday pantomime stories for decades. You almost can't call yourselves an American ballet troupe these days unless you trot out "The Nutcracker" when the weather cools.

The recording industry, like the publishing world, has gone cuckoo over Christmas. Just about every crooner -- from Bing Crosby to the Chipmunks to Toni Braxton -- has pressed a Christmas CD. This year's highlights include Alan Jackson's "Let It Be Christmas" and "White Trash Christmas" by Bob Rivers, featuring uplifting tunes like "The Little Hooters Girl," sung to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy," and "I'll Be Stoned for Christmas." Perry Como, Snoopy and others have had successful runs on yuletide TV.

It doesn't take a miser to realize that a good Christmas book just might sell well year in and year out.

First published in 1843, "A Christmas Carol" is available today in more than 50 editions from Barnes & Noble's online store. It's a cautionary tale: Dickens tried -- unsuccessfully -- to repeat his triumph with other Christmas stories, such as "The Chimes."

Random House tumbled on the secret of perennial sales in the 1960s and 1970s when Truman Capote's slender and sentimental "A Christmas Memory" continued to fly off the shelves year after year. "The Christmas Box" by Richard Paul Evans has returned annually like wild mistletoe since it was published in the mid-1990s. (But that's a case of an obscure writer happening upon bestsellerdom, not a bestselling author setting out to conquer the world.)

The benefits to the publisher are obvious, Milliot says. "There is no new advance. You're paying royalties, but you don't mind doing that. Promotions are already in place."

He says, "It's really found money."

And: "You don't have to deal with critics."

For the proven and prolific writer who forth spews books with clockwork precision, it's a chance to slip another title onto the shelves.

Of this year's crop, Milliot adds, "People are a little surprised that Grisham's 'Skipping Christmas' has done as well as it has."

Grisham's story of Luther and Nora Krank, who decided to ignore Christmas altogether, just may be the new standard. The company shipped 2.1 million copies last year and the book rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. So far there are 1.3 million copies in print this time around and the book will be No. 2 on this week's New York Times list.

Stephen Rubin, president and publisher at Doubleday, Grisham's home, isn't leaving everything up to the goodwill of the season. "When John came in and gave us the book, he said his vision was always to keep it in hardcover and bring it back year after year."

To rekindle interest on this second go-round, Rubin says, the company's sales director suggested that the price be lowered and advised Doubleday to "change the packaging, using the same illustration, but making it a much more gifty look."

In "The Christmas Train," a journalist travels by rail from Washington to Los Angeles and runs into various characters and a blizzard. Publishers Weekly notes that Baldacci "gets a bit preachy about the advantages of train travel and the lessons of Christmas."

But, the review adds, "This is a more warmhearted and enjoyable novel than Grisham's comparable holiday offering last year, 'Skipping Christmas,' and Baldacci's fans will snap it up as the Yuletide treat it is."

In "Visions," Evanovich's protagonist Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter, makes it through a hectic holiday. Kirkus Reviews says: "Plotting gets short shrift in this thinnest of Plum puddings."

Regardless of the critiques, the books -- like the CDs and TV specials -- are making cash registers jingle.

Stuart Applebaum of Random House says, "It is a great creative and financial engine driving the holiday choo-choo train. For us publishers the notion of a holiday book perennial is relatively new, but many of us are making up for lost time with the opportunities now in the marketplace.

"It's a little too easy for some to be cynical about it, but the stories are done creatively and earnestly by the authors."

He adds, "The question is whether or not there will be continuity."

Working Christmas into book series: Jan Karon with Mitford, above; Janet Evanovich with Stephanie Plum.