Publishers pouring out volumes on the issues of the day

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They've been arriving regularly since early spring, first in a trickle, now in a steady stream and by the end of August, a flood.

Inspired by the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration's war on terror and domestic policies, the performance of the news media and the vicious partisan nature of today's politics, mainstream publishers are releasing an unusual amount of books on current affairs.

"Ten years ago, political books didn't sell very well," said Patricia Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers. "Now, in the last three or four years, the sales are off the charts. Look at the last election with the Al Frankens, Michael Moores, Bill O'Reillys. The publishers know this and they're responding."

Schroeder, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives -- and a Democrat -- also brought up best-selling books by former Bush administration officials like former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Environmental Protection Agency Director Christine Todd Whitman.

"I call it their 'exit strategy.' These people are loyal until they leave the corral and then they can write a controversial book," she laughed.

Schroeder also suggested that the year's increase in books on current events is spurred by a citizenry becoming disenchanted with the treatment of serious issues on TV.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.   
What to choose from:

Books on issues of the day

   

"With these talking heads yelling at each other, hardly any subject gets more than 10 seconds of air time," she said. "Books are the last place in America where you can have an extended conversation."

Steve Ross, the Crown Books publisher who launched its conservative book imprint, Crown Forum, several years ago, sees the year in political books shaping up like the 2004 presidential year.

"There must have been something like seven or eight political books on the best-seller lists, then the marketplace died down. Clearly, publishers this year are anticipating a similar hunger," he said.

When the political stakes are high, as they are this year, readers are "using the bookstore like a voting booth," Ross said. "When a customer chooses to buy a political title, every ring on the cash register is like a vote. It's one way for people to register their dismay at what's going on."

"Periodically the world around us becomes utterly fascinating and irresistible," said Peter Osnos, founder and publisher-at-large of Public Affairs books.

"Previously it was Watergate, Vietnam and civil rights. Today, we're in a period of heightened political consciousness. We're being told we live in perilous times."

That sense of concern has convinced publishers that there is a growing market for current affairs and political books, he said.

"When the issues are important, as they were in the 1960s, then publishers respond with serious books. When the issues are on a par with Monica Lewinsky, like they were in the 1990s, then nobody bothers with problems like Rwanda."

The increasing numbers of issue titles, though is just part of a larger media world "where people are inundated with information," Osnos said. "And, these days, everybody feels that everything that happens has to be commented on.

"There is so much in the way of information and now, information is seen as entertainment and entertainment is everywhere," he said, adding, "and books by people like Ann Coulter are entertainment, not information."

Ross is the publisher of Coulter's latest stream of invective, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," a Crown Forum imprint ($27.95).

Despite Coulter's high profile on television, her book is only one of a few right-wing titles on this year's list.

Ross:

"There are two reasons for that. First, because President Bush's ratings are at a historic low. Second, because the fact is that most of us who work at major trade (publishing) houses are liberal in our political orientation and tend to publish books that reflect our views."

To offer a mainstream alternative, Ross started publishing books by conservative writers.

"I wanted to conservative readers and authors the chance to share the benefits of one of the largest publishers in the country, Random House, and all the benefits that go with it," he said.

(Random House is the parent company of Crown Books.)

Osnos suggests that Crown and other big publishers with conservative imprints are really tapping into a new role for books.

"Ann Coulter, Arianna Huffington, they're simply writing books for the sake of their invective. It's books as pamphlet, books as a blog, books as a argument," he said. "At one time in America we had the morning newspaper and the evening TV news. Now, there's vastly more opportunity to choose and the marketplace is responding."


Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634. Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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