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CDS Goes to Bat for Mary Magdalene

Da Vinci Code mania may be dead, but that doesn't mean publishers have given up on theological conspiracy theories. Despite signs that the craze for Dan Brown's megaseller is finally cooling, at least one publisher is betting that interest in a topic that's pegged to Da Vinci, Mary Magdalene, is just starting to heat up.

Perseus's CDS Books imprint is putting quite a lot of faith in Secrets of Mary Magdalene: The Untold Story of History's Most Misunderstood Woman. A compilation of essays about the titular figure, the title was originally scheduled for an Easter release and a first printing of 15,000 copies. All that changed, though, when Perseus president David Steinberger started hearing about a big summer fiction title involving Mary Magdalene called The Expected One, coming from Touchstone. With interest building for Expected, CDS decided to up the first printing for Secrets to 150,000 copies and pushed the release date to August 8. Now the question is: Why would a fiction title about Mary Magdalene cause an imprint to so drastically change its hopes for a nonfiction book?

Although Secrets of Mary Magdalene is edited by Dan Burstein and Arne J. De Keijzer, the pair behind the bestselling Secrets of the Code (which was also published by Perseus and, according to Steinberger, sold 400,000 copies in hardcover and a combined 500,000 in various forms of paperback), the book seemed like it would be a niche title. But Steinberger said Secrets of Mary Magdalene, which he initially saw as a midlist book, started getting "a huge amount of interest" when The Expected One began making headlines.

For its part The Expected One, which was most notably covered in a July 18 piece in USA Today, looks like it has the makings of a summer hit. (It's currently #9 on PW's bestseller list.) The first major sale from LJK, the new lit agency started by former Time Warner Books head Larry Kirshbaum, the novel is part of a three-book deal for author Kathleen McGowan, an L.A. native who claims she's a direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

With her press-worthy backstory— McGowan has said that her heroine, an author who goes hunting for a lost gospel penned by Mary Magdalene, after seeing visions of Jesus' disciple, is largely based on herself— Simon & Schuster is backing the novel with an initial printing of 250,000 copies and $275,000 planned for promotional efforts. And, of course, despite the Da Vinci parallels—McGowan's novel works off one of the key themes of Brown's book, that Mary Magdalene carries the bloodline of Jesus—the author insists her work is more than imitative. As she told USA Today, she is not merely riding "The Da Vinci Code bandwagon."

Neither is Perseus, according to Steinberger and CDS v-p and publisher Roger Cooper. Calling what's happening with Secrets "more than Da Vinci redux," Cooper maintains that interest in Mary Magdalene is not waning because she remains a fascinating historical figure. And Steinberger said he thinks it's because she remains the "most intriguing figure" in Brown's book. Burstein, who edited Secrets, put it more bluntly: "Mary Magdalene is a heroine to many, many people whose involvement in spiritual and cosmological journeys goes way beyond the pages of The Da Vinci Code."

If Perseus is right about Secrets—which should be helped along by the same-titled documentary DVDs being shipped to stores on September 6—then publishers may be seeing and hearing a lot more of a certain mystery woman from Jesus' past.