When a glut of Enron proposals made the rounds last year, Broadway editor Charles Conrad was ready to bid. But he knew there were a lot of risks. So he hedged, and bought a story about Arthur Andersen instead.
Andersen made sense, Conrad said, because the company was connected to Enron, but there are fewer books about it. Given that more people worked for Andersen than for Enron, and Andersen's troubles involved other companies, like Sunbeam, he thought the book would have more potential customers.
Publishers of upcoming books related to Enron's declaration of bankruptcy in December 2001 have plenty of reason to proceed carefully. If news-driven narratives are normally a crapshoot, Enron titles are $5 slots: large pay in, unlikely payout. Last fall, four such books topped several publishers' lists and all faded quietly away. The biggest seller was journalist Robert Bryce's investigative overview, Pipe Dreams (Public Affairs, Oct.), which had an introduction by Molly Ivins. According to Nielsen Bookscan, it sold a modest 13,130 copies (a number assumed to represent between 60% and 70% of the book's total sales, and which does not include airport and other accounts).
Among the remaining titles, two were from Wiley: the first book about the debacle, the paperback layman's guide What Went Wrong at Enron (July) by Ross Miller and Peter Fusaro, and a hardcover that focused on the company's business practices, Enron: The Rise and Fall (Sept.) by journalist Loren Fox. Finally, there was former employee Brian Cruver's Anatomy of Greed (Carroll & Graf, Sept.), which described how it felt to work at Enron as a young energy trader. "It's somewhat strange. Usually when you have a whole bunch of books on a subject like this, one breaks out of the pack," said Gene Taft, publicity director for PublicAffairs.
While three new books arriving this month are mostly written by better-known authors and generally accompanied by more buzz, the hefty sums involved in their acquisition and marketing raise the stakes considerably. That has left every publisher with an Enron title emphasizing that special reason their book could cross over to a wide readership.
Doubleday's Power Failure blends the personal story of Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins with the investigative findings of Texas Monthly journalist Mimi Swartz. With the major exception of an appearance last year as one of Time magazine's three Women of the Year, Watkins has kept pre-pub media interviews to a minimum, which Doubleday hopes will add freshness to its campaign for the embargoed book—that is, if Watkins proves charismatic on TV. Immediately following the book's March 25 laydown, the former Enron employee will make the rounds, from the Today show to Dateline unless war coverage intervenes.
Other publishers are straying from the main strand of the Enron story. In March, Broadway will release Final Accounting by Barbara Ley Toffler, who was in charge of Andersen's Ethics and Responsible Business Practices consulting services, and coauthor Jennifer Reingold. June will bring Inside Arthur Andersen (Prentice Hall) by four organizational experts who worked in various capacities for the Andersen empire: Susan E. Squires, Cynthia Smith, William R. Yeack and Lorna McDougall. Both unhitch their wagons from news about Enron's Jeff Skilling and other executives, either by chronicling how Andersen's culture fostered critical judgment lapses (Broadway) or extracting more general management and business lessons (Prentice Hall).
Meanwhile, Penguin/Portfolio has what may prove to be the most comprehensive version of the Enron story, by the Fortune reporters who originally broke it: Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, with Fortune editor Joseph Nocera. The imprint, which paid more than a million dollars for the book, has pushed publication to September, hoping for more hard news when the case goes to trial in a few months, or at least more distance from competing books. "This is not an auspicious time to publish an Enron book," conceded Portfolio's Adrian Zackheim, referring to other news distractions and the "scrum" of related titles. "But the deep, long-term impact of the story will be felt for a long time," he added.
But booksellers watching these titles are drawing some ambivalent conclusions. "The business world does not expect to find anything new in these books," said Jenny Lawton, owner of Just Books in Greenwich, Conn., adding that general readers increasingly "want something funny or fictional" as the national mood gets more anxious. One retailer who specializes in business books was similarly attuned to the pitfalls. "So much mud has slid on top of the Enron scandal," said the insider—referring to later debacles such as Worldcom and Global Crossing—that convincing book buyers to return to Enron will be tricky.
When the question of the Portfolio book's longevity comes up, Zackheim cites All the President's Men, a book whose distance and journalistic authority helped it float above bestselling Watergate tell-alls by John Dean and other figures—and last a lot longer. Historically, however, narratives of business scandals tend to fare differently than political ones. True, Barbarians at the Gate, the 1990 account of malfeasance at RJR Nabisco, was a hardcover bestseller. But as so many who published books about Microsoft learned in the last decade, for every crossover hit there are many more stories that become too detailed, or come too late, for most book buyers. "Even if you have a book that everyone agrees is the absolute best book on the subject, does that mean anyone will buy it?" said one person closely associated with a new Enron book.
After all the editorial and marketing positioning, publishers may just have to reconcile themselves to market realities. "Publishers are always chasing stories like Enron. The way you hedge your bets is, you don't expect too much," said Conrad, who reportedly paid in the solid six figures for his title, though less than Scholl or Zackheim. "These are business stories. They have a specific audience. You can't suddenly think this is The Hot Zone or Into Thin Air."