Matthew Flamm
October 06, 1995 AT 04:00 AM EDT

If ever there were a test case for the influence of reviews on book sales, The Horse Whisperer would be it. Screenwriter Nicholas Evans’ first novel, the $6 million saga of a Montana horse trainer, arrived in stores Sept. 6 riding a tidal wave of hype that began last fall when Robert Redford and Hollywood Pictures forked over $3 million for movie rights even before the unfinished manuscript had a publisher.

At first glance the deal seemed risky for Redford and Dell Publishing, which beat out nine other houses to lasso The Horse Whisperer for $3.15 million — according to Dell, a North American record for a debut novel. Reviews in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post were moderately favorable, but The New York Times Book Review didn’t mince words, calling the book ”sentimentally bloated,” and USA Today complained the British author had ”seen too many Marlboro commercials.”

That’s usually enough to banish a book to the remainder pile, but after two weeks in stores, The Horses of Madison County — as publishing wags are calling it — has galloped to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Delacorte Press, Dell’s hardcover imprint, has upped the total print run to 650,000 (one-third that amount would qualify a first novel as a blockbuster). And if the brisk sales continue at this pace, the most expensive first novel in history could become the fastest-selling first novel in history.

As befits a No. 1 author whose Robert Walleresque cowboy hero can heal both women and horses, the 45-year-old London-based Evans — who nearly went broke while he worked on the book — refuses to strike back at his critics. ”I got lucky enough,” he says. ”I don’t have to get everything.”

Indeed, the negative reviews have thus far had no impact at all. ”I was curious to see how it would play out,” says Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, hardcover fiction buyer for the Waldenbooks and Brentano’s bookstore chains. ”I didn’t think they would affect my mall customers so much, but then USA Today trashed it, which is the mall audience.”

So why has the novel sold so well? ”It’s a wonderful story,” Dallanegra-Sanger says. ”And you can see the movie in it.” (In fact, Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth is working on the screenplay, while Redford himself will star in the film and may also direct.) Plus, unlike The Bridges of Madison County, which hit bookstores in 1992 with no fanfare and built slowly based on word of mouth, The Horse Whisperer seems to have capitalized smartly on its prepublication hype.

If there were any moments of doubt on the part of Dell Publishing, no one is saying. ”I’m very disappointed in that the reviews in large part have been so predictable,” says an otherwise jubilant Carole Baron, president and publisher of Dell, best known for such big-name authors as Danielle Steel and Elmore Leonard. ”This book has many lives down the road. The hardcover, the paperback, the movie tie-in. We’re on the way to not only breaking even but making a great deal of money.”

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