Helped and hyped by word of her next album, Erotica, and her next movie, the as-yet-unrated (but rumored to be NC-17) Body of Evidence, the buzz over Madonna’s photo fantasy book, Sex, has become the biggest pop news this fall — more than a month before Sex‘s actual Oct. 21 publication date. But is any of this heat coming from a public insatiable for ever more Madonna — or is it just hot promotion? Answer: the latter, because Sex may not be as easy to sell as it sounds.
Warner Books has ordered a staggering first printing of 835,000 copies — a half million in the U.S. alone — in six languages worldwide. ”It’s the largest initial release of any illustrated book in publishing history,” says Nicholas Callaway of Callaway Editions, the publishing house that is producing the book. Yet with every leak about the 128-page, five-color, spiral-bound volume with aluminum covers, the company’s worries about Sex increase. In the middle of a presidential election notable for an attempt to emphasize ”family values,” how will people react to photos of whips, chains, pierced nipples, and tattooed lesbian skinheads holding stiletto knives to Madonna’s crotch?
”We knew what we were buying (with Madonna),” says Warner Books publisher Nanscy Neiman, who also edited Sex. ”We publish many controversial books, and this won’t be the last one.” By sealing Sex in heavy-duty, fingernail-proof Mylar packaging and slapping a warning sticker on the front, Warner says it’s clearly targeting the book for adults only. Waldenbooks says it will only sell Sex to buyers 18 and over and it plans to check ID. According to a spokeswoman for both B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble, both chains will allow their stores to set their own display policies. ”In some places,” says Donna Passannanti, ”that might mean a front-of-the-store display; in others — where the market is more sensitive — it might be available only behind the register.”
Controversy or no, it will still be a struggle to sell a book with a $49.95 price tag. ”The average art book sells between 5,000 and 10,000 copies,” says Callaway. ”Fifty thousand is spectacular.” Considering the money invested in the book — photographer Steven Meisel shot 81,036 photographs, the printers ordered more than 750,000 pounds of metal for the cover and three different kinds of paper for the inside, and the book was rush-printed in 15 days — Sex will have to sell at least 350,000 copies before Warner sees a profit. To that end, the company will launch a major radio and print advertising campaign for the book. ”Nothing’s a given,” says Ellen Herrick, Warner’s director of publicity. ”No matter what, you have to convince people to spend 50 bucks. You want to get people talking about it.”
But will there be so much talk that people will be sick of Sex by the time it comes out? It’s a concern. Madonna’s longtime spokeswoman, Liz Rosenberg, concedes that she wishes the new Vanity Fair cover featuring Madonna had come out later. ”The media just took over the information,” she says. ”I didn’t anticipate they would go so crazy.”
Others wonder if there really is such a thing as Madonna overkill. ”There’s always that invisible shadow line beyond which hype self-destructs,” says Variety editor Peter Bart. ”People in the business say she’s approaching that line.” Even if Sex sells, suggests culture theorist and Madonna devotee Camille Paglia, it might be a hard act to follow. ”Short of going into a convent,” says Paglia, ”I don’t know how she can top herself after this.”
But Christopher Andersen, author of the best-selling 1991 biography Madonna Unauthorized, doesn’t doubt that the Girl’s still got it. ”She seems to keep pushing the envelope without pushing it wide open,” he says. ”She hasn’t offended people enough for them to turn away. Nobody knows the market level of shock better than she does.”