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Cover makeover leads to a best-seller

‘A Civil Action’ goes paperback

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It took three tries — and three different covers — but Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action has finally hit the best-seller list. Harr spent eight years working on his book, the true story of a young lawyer’s battle to prove corporate giants had polluted a Massachusetts town’s drinking water. When Random House publisher Harry Evans read the final manuscript, ”he said he thought it could sell 400,000 copies and would shoot up to the top of the list,” recalls Harr. ”He said, ‘You’ve done your job — now it’s our time to do ours.”’

But when Random House published the book last September, they presented it as a sober, serious study, with a staid cover to match. The jacket wasn’t the only problem: A Civil Action was on the same fall list as Random House’s biggest book of 1995, Colin Powell’s My American Journey — and it got predictably overshadowed. By last December, A Civil Action had gotten terrific reviews (and been a National Book Award finalist), but sales were flat. So in January, the company republished the book as a real-life legal thriller, replacing its dull jacket with one that boasted a John Grisham quote. But though it sold steadily, it never made a best-seller list.

Enter Marty Asher, editor in chief of Vintage, which had paperback rights. Asher thought the cover was the book’s main problem all along. ”I wanted a person on it,” he says. ”It’s the story of this obsessed lawyer, and it reads like fiction.” His ploy seems to have worked — there are now 200,000 paperback copies of A Civil Action out, and the book has reached No. 3 on the Publishers Weekly list.

The cover story isn’t over yet. A movie, starring John Travolta, is in the works, and when it comes out so will another paperback — this one, undoubtedly, with Travolta plastered across the front. How does Harr feel about that? ”He’s a helluva lot more famous than me,” he says. ”I’d be delighted.”