Welcome to contemporary book publishing in the emerging world of mentalities shaped by instant media and reality TV. Get out your tea leaves, your Ouija boards, your grandmother’s magical chicken bones. There’s been a lot of buzz lately about foolhardy writers of nonfiction books who “chase headlines,” and the agents and publishers who tout their work. Guess right, be a genius for a day; guess wrong, join the chain of fools. And maybe eat worms.

As a literary agent, I’m guilty of my share of misfires in the dicey pursuit of publishing books that follow up on juicy current events. Which of today’s sudden celebrities, game show winners, reality TV sensations, imaginative criminals or heart-wrenching victims will we still love tomorrow?

We all see through a glass darkly in choosing such stories. For every book that goes golden, a myriad of others crash on lift-off, grim testament to the difficulty of the whole Nostradamus thing.

Publishers, most of all, must send up a prayer when they commit vast resources of money and labor. Every time another tome bites the dust, it means a host of consistently smart and generally fastidious professionals somehow bet the wrong pony.

But turn that dark glass in another direction and see why the game is one that the publishing world cannot quit. Hyperion took the risk of acquiring The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch for $6.75 million, a perilous leap that paid off on a scale that brings hardened publishers to tears and gets ’em back in church on Sundays: an initial run of 400,000 leapt to two million copies in print within the first week of release.

Back when the video of Pausch’s last lecture at Carnegie Mellon first hit YouTube, Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow read the tea leaves so well that he went to see Dr. Pausch on his own time and at his own expense. Zaslow not only generated two articles for the WSJ, but so impressed Pausch that their book collaboration was born.

Hyperion risked that heady advance fee only after a heated book auction conducted by the lucky agents, David Black and Gary Morris. This time, everybody was right.

Another headline with sticking power is Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope, from Howard Publishing/S&S. Although the book was published almost a full year after the story made national headlines, it jumped onto nine national bestseller lists with four weeks of publication, hitting near the top spot on PW’s list the last four weeks in a row. The story is both tragic and inspirational, and it is another dream example of sharp headline chasing.

Some people think tearjerkers are an easy call. Leaving aside the endless debates over subject matter (particularly as pertains to true crime stories), let’s ask the question: how do you determine when headlines are financially worth chasing if the subjects are dark?

The demonstrated answer is that any “headline” is worth chasing if its message is universal and it has a timeless quality. Consider the very strong sales of the Goldman family’s release of O.J. Simpson’s presumptive confessional, If I Did It, and its two months on the NYT bestseller list and eight other national lists. (Full disclosure: I was the agent for this book.) Its original planned release from Regan Books was a national scandal. But a few months later, after it was taken from Simpson and its proceeds awarded to the victims’ families, the repugnant ethical aroma disappeared. Sales were driven by the public’s need to squeeze some sense of justice from the debacle of the whole case. And so, even that dark story served a more compelling purpose.

Most of us won’t find the next Tuesdays with Morrie. Even among vile subjects, a legitimate angle of redemption can sometimes be found. If we turn up our noses too easily, we risk missing the next runaway hit to cover for all the remaindered corpses of books that flat-lined on release.

Oops—you must excuse me. I think I hear sirens....

Author Information
Sharlene Martin is the founder of Martin Literary Management, with offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle (summer 2008).