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Posthumous books could come with a lot of dollar signs

Works help revive publishers’ fortunes

Stieg Larsson (left) and Robert Parker have had their series extended by other writers after death.Associated Press file photos

By Joseph P. Kahn

Globe Correspondent

It’s been a banner year for authors who are no longer around to celebrate their success. A groaning shelf of recently published works by deceased brand-name writers, or those filling their literary shoes, shows that when it comes to books, gone does not mean forgotten. Or even unpublishable. Not by a long shot.

This is particularly true at a time when the industry, facing weak sales and looking for sure-fire winners, is catering to the appetites of consumers accustomed to being offered a steady diet of tried-and-true favorites in this age of playlists and seemingly never-ending series.

Add to this the growth of websites that let publishers directly track book lovers’ sentiments, making them feel less at the mercy of critics and other cultural gatekeepers who may raise their eyebrows at the circumstances of a posthumous publication.

The strategy appears to be working. Fans of the late Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel (who died in 1991) turned a book, pieced together from pages long buried in Geisel’s files, into an instant bestseller when it was published in July. A month later, a work by J.R.R. Tolkien (whose death came in 1973) that had been previously published in an obscure academic journal was released to some fanfare in the United Kingdom — and is slated for publication here in April.

Meanwhile, the latest by Pulitzer winner Oscar Hijuelos, who died in 2013 while putting the finishing touches on the novel , emerged this month.

For devotees of departed mystery stars Stieg Larsson and Robert B. Parker and spy master Ian Fleming, September was a virtual bonanza, bringing fresh additions to their literary franchises, produced by writers recruited for the job by the late authors’ publishers or estates. The late Tom Clancy joins the party in December with publication of “Tom Clancy Commander In Chief,” a Jack Ryan novel written by Clancy’s former co-author Mark Greaney.

Interest in keeping these franchises alive is not surprising. Trade-book sales — those books for general readership — are relatively flat over the past few years, with adult fiction down 3.4 percent industrywide over first half of 2015.

So Knopf vice president Paul Bogaards may not be entirely joking when he quips that publishers now have search teams “assigned to certain backlist authors, looking for lost manuscripts.”

More seriously, says Bogaards, “in genre fiction, an iconic protagonist is money in the bank.” Whether it’s Jason Bourne, James Bond, or Lisbeth Salander, he observes, “Readers are happy to be re-acquainted with them. And publishers are always willing to be the intermediaries to make that happen.”

He should know. Knopf has done well with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” a continuation of Larsson’s Millennium series now in the hands of author David Lagercrantz. The book has sold a half-million copies in North America alone, and last month, Lagercrantz signed a contract to produce two more novels in the series.

Meanwhile, “Spider’s Web” has created what Bogaards calls a “halo effect,” causing a sharp spike in the earlier books from the Larsson series.

The latest by the late Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was a bestseller.

Random House

The latest by the late Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was a bestseller.

For his estate, run by the late-author’s widow, Audrey Geisel, Dr. Seuss is one brand-name gift that keeps on giving. Forbes magazine ranks Geisel/Seuss at number 11 on its 2015 list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, with $9.5 million, a sum derived from book royalties, licensing fees, and other sources. The beloved children’s author has been joined on that list in recent years by Larsson, Tolkien, and Robert Ludlum.

Industry observers note that the idea of capitalizing on a late author’s popularity to sell books may have taken on a new urgency of late, but it is not new.

Two notable examples are works by Ernest Hemingway — his 1964 memoir “A Moveable Feast” and “The Garden of Eden,” a novel first published in 1986 — both of which appeared well after the author’s death in 1961.

In the past few years, books by David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Michael Crichton, and Ludlum, among others, have also appeared posthumously.

What may be different today is that publishers seem less afraid of getting potential flak from critics, pundits, and book sellers who may question the legitimacy, or worth, of a work that appears without the author’s express blessing.

One reason they worry less about negative feedback is that in many cases it does not appear to hurt sales. Both Hemingway books, for example, raised questions about how they were edited or reassembled from manuscript fragments left behind by the author. Still, both became bestsellers.

Another reason? Publishers focused on the bottom line have a better sense of what their audience wants and therefore stand a good chance of rushing to buy.

Commercial distributors are tracking reader interests closely, says Seth Abramson, a poet and cultural critic who teaches literature at the University of New Hampshire’s Manchester campus. “Everything we read can be catered to our specific tastes.’’

Abramson and others point to the treasure trove of information available at websites such as Amazon and Goodreads, a social network claiming 40 million book-loving members who rate and review favored titles.

Some publishers make advance copies available on a limited basis to readers just to get the buzz going. The information gleaned online can help publishers and authors (or their estates) gauge what readers want.

“Digital marketing makes it easier to build on brand,” says Mike Shatzkin of The Idea Logical Co., a publishing industry analyst. “It’s marketing direct to consumers in a world where you can see their behaviors, which is really brand new for the publishing business.”

“There’s no question there are more gates than ever,” agrees Michael Pietsch, chief executive at Hachette Book Group, whose firm publishes sequels to Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series.

The democratizing of the process by which books are publicized and popularized, Pietsch notes, has been helped along by the advent of bloggers, Instagrammers, and others who play a role that mainstream book critics once had exclusively to themselves.

“In the past, you might not have even heard there was a new Bourne novel out unless you happen to have walked into a bookstore,” he says.

John “Ike” Williams, a Boston-based attorney and literary agent, says he is not overly concerned about a rise in posthumous publication.

Williams, who has spent five decades in publishing, says a more troubling trend is what he calls the “capitalization of culture,” whereby a conglomerated publishing industry turns increasingly to celebrity authors (TV stars, pop singers) and brand-name writers to sell books — and to satisfy their corporate owners.

“It’s hard to suggest that people are more evil and money-grubbing than before,” says Williams. Still, only 10 percent of commercially published books earn a full return on investment. “Have they learned something from the movies about these sequels?” he asks. “Maybe they have. Milk it until it’s dead, you know.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.