No sooner does a bit of news hit the airwaves than publishers scramble to sign up books on the topic du jour. Stock market slides? A wise publisher not only goes into the archives to dust off some how-to-invest-in-bad-times tomes but he also ponies up to buy new ones, like Stephen Leeb's Game Over: How the Collapsing Economy Will Shrink Your Wealth by 50% Unless You Know What to Do (Grand Central) and The New New Deal by financial expert Eric Janszen (Portfolio). Bear Stearns in trouble? Maybe for shareholders, but not for publishers, two of whom—Doubleday and HarperCollins—apparently think they can score with big-ticket books on the topic. It's enough to make you wonder why the other big news story of the month—New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace—hasn't been shopped to houses yet. (And I do mean yet. I've heard that the escort at the center of the story has been approached for her story by more than Hustler magazine.)
“The goal in publishing [topical nonfiction] books is to stake out your turf as quickly as possible,” Grand Central VP and executive editor Rick Wolff told the L.A. Times last week. At the same time, the paper quoted another editor, Roger Scholl of Doubleday, saying, “It takes time to decide... which events should be the basis for a book.”
Which, of course, raises the fundamental publishing question. Is it better to rush to publish stories “ripped from today's headlines” to feed a public bent on immediate gratification or to hang back and ruminate, hoping that time will give both authors and readers a hankering for perspective? And the answer is, as usual: it depends.
Take, for example, the books that were rushed out soon after the election of 2000 and the events of 9/11; most were not top sellers. On the other hand, books about the Enron scandal—especially two that took their time and offered the most perspective—were well reviewed and sold reasonably well. According to Nielsen BookScan, Portfolio's The Smartest Guys in the Room sold 53,000 copies in hardcover, while New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools sold 100,000. As counterpoint—take note, you potential Spitzer publishers—despite a lot of publicity, the last governor-scandal book, The Confession by ex—N.J. governor James McGreevy, has sold 38,000.
Still, though, publishers can't seem to keep themselves from chasing the news. And I don't know whether there's really more news than ever about American business and society, or just a greater number of outlets calling it news, but it seems clear that one thing we do have is too many publishers who are way too quick to put the shock of the day—every day—between hardcovers. There's a reason, after all, that newspaper reporters regularly refer to “one-day stories.” That's because there are a lot of them, and that's just what they should remain. Meanwhile, there are stories that take years to develop. Need I mention the five-year-old story that, but for a recent anniversary, has fallen out of major newspaper coverage of late? Book publishing, to its credit, has not suffered such a loss of attention, as titles like Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, just out from Public Affairs, attest. Not everything topical is fleeting.
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