It’s a numbers game — even in the world of words. And while final scores for 1996 have yet to be tallied (the book industry’s sales-tracking system is notoriously diffuse), insiders have already drawn conclusions about what flew and what flopped last year. What this bodes for 1997 is another matter. For a business that hinges — at least ostensibly — on the life of the mind, publishing seems shockingly deficient in either rhyme or reason these days. What’s the magic formula for success? Depends on whom you ask.

LAND A BRAND-NAME AUTHOR…Repeat successes like John Grisham and Danielle Steel accounted for approximately 90 percent of Publishers Weekly’s 1996 hardcover fiction best-sellers. Stephen King’s Green Mile monopoly on the mass-market charts swelled Penguin USA’s coffers considerably. ”We have to live with this constant report card and focus on bestsellerdom, and if you’re not one of these top performers then many deem you not worthy,” observes Bantam president Irwyn Applebaum, who recently filched Dean Koontz from Knopf. ”I’m very aware that we need to build brands,” says new HarperCollins head Anthea Disney, whose company has major franchises in John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) and Scott Adams (Dilbert) but lags in fiction. (Nota bene: Joe Klein will probably not live up to the brand-name promise of Anonymous.)

…BUT MIND THOSE PURSE STRINGS Almost everyone agrees that advances are spiraling out of control, most notably for public figures who aren’t necessarily authors. ”The basic economic structure of the business is not a healthy one,” opines Warner Books chairman Larry Kirshbaum. ”We have Hollywood-type aspirations, but without the dollars coming in from the consumer.” Among the books that failed to live up to pre-publication hype: autobiographies by Jay Leno (HarperCollins) and Brett Butler (Hyperion); Michael Johnson’s Slaying the Dragon (ReganBooks); Random House’s lead fall fiction title, Dark Debts; and a slew of O.J. books — including Johnnie Cochran’s Journey to Justice (Ballantine), which didn’t make a single national best-seller list despite an ambitious half-million-copy first printing. Royal payoffs, on the other hand, came from Dennis Rodman’s Bad as I Wanna Be (Delacorte), Christopher Darden’s In Contempt (ReganBooks), and Make the Connection, by Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey (Hyperion). Speaking of which…

MAKE SURE TO GET OPRAH’S BLESSING Warner Books made savvy purchases in David Baldacci (Absolute Power) and Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook). And the company hardly needed help selling Celestine prophet James Redfield. But it was The Oprah Winfrey Show that sent the publisher over the top last year, with appearances giving sales boosts to Simple Abundance, as well as to those wacky Rules and Ekaterina Gordeeva’s My Sergei.

Winfrey also did her fair share for Penguin, which published her book-club selections, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. ”We actually made it through the year without any help from Oprah,” marvels Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos, ”although I’ll quickly add that I’ll take as much as she wants to give us.”