Food for Thought In a Happy Meal
Bridget Kinsella -- 1/15/01
An investigative reporter uses fast food as a metaphor for vast changes in American society

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Some books are enough to make you lose your appetite. When Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1906, it did more than affect the nation's diet, it helped revolutionize the meat-packing industry and galvanized the organized labor movement. Now, if the prepub buzz is to be believed, a nonfiction book called Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin) that is already being compared to the Sinclair classic could spark a debate on the direction America has headed since its first waltz through the golden arches in the 1950s.

Fast Food Nation lives up to its subtitle, The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, then g s way beyond food. Sure, Schlosser shocks readers with revelations that the meat in that trusty
"The dark side of the
All-American meal."
hamburger found at any strip mall on any highway in America is so processed that the flavor is now actually manufactured by a chemical company in New Jersey. And--watch out, vegetarians--the French fries are flavored with meat. But then the author broadens his scope and uses fast food as a metaphor to illustrate the cultural, economic and societal changes that have occurred in the last half century. From the politicized quagmire of food regulatory policy to the inequity of wages, urban sprawl and globalization, Schlosser contends that nothing is beyond the wake of the rise of fast food companies. "By systematically dismantling the industry's various aspects, Schlosser establishes a seminal argument for the true wrongs at the core of American society," wrote PW in its starred review (Forecasts, Dec. 11, 2000).
Fast Food Nation grew out of a two-part article on the subject Schlosser wrote for Rolling Stone in 1998. The magazine received more mail on that story than for any other story published in a decade. Schlosser, an investigative reporter, worked an entire year on the RS story. "I felt at the end of it, I had just scratched the surface of what I had to say on the subject," he told PW. Although this is his first book, Schlosser said he had toyed with expanding several of his articles from his career as a magazine writer and regular contributor for the Atlantic Monthly into a book. "This seemed like the first one that had the scope and the potential," he added.

The scope of themes in Fast Food Nation immediately struck multiple chords with Houghton executive editor Eamon Dolan. Quickly Dolan made an offer to agent Tina Bennett of Janklow & Nesbit and preempted an auction for the book when it was being shopped around in 1998. "I had read the [Rolling Stone] article, so when I received it, I was primed," Dolan told PW. "While others were collecting their thoughts, I made a fairly bold move." Dolan said he felt that Houghton, the publisher of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, was a natural fit for a book of "activist journalism in the best tradition."

Just now in the stores, Fast Food Nation is Houghton's lead title this season. Dolan declined to reveal the size of the initial print run but said, "It's a nice number."

Even with the house behind it and a variety of news headlines--the massacre at a Wendy's in Queens, N.Y., , the protests in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting, alarms about increasing obesity (particularly among children) and recent reports of sabotage against urban sprawl on Long Island--supporting the timeliness of a book like Schlosser's, Dolan still had one nagging question: Would it play to a mainstream audience? "You never know with a book like this," he said. "It takes a special writer to make a book like this work."

A New Home for O'Faolain's Second

After Frank McCourt and Maeve Binchy, perhaps the Irish writer who has impacted the American bestseller lists most is Nuala O'Faolain. Are You Somebody?, her memoir of growing up in the repressed Ireland of the 1940s and '50s, was on every major bestseller list, selling more than 300,000 copies in both hardcover and trade paperback.
As Are You Somebody? climbed the bestseller lists for Holt two years ago, one of its disappointed suitors, Riverhead co-editorial director Julie Grau, decided to see what O'Faolain was working on next. She contacted Frances Goldin and Sydelle Kramer, who were representing O'Faolain. "I called, and was told she had 200 or so rough pages of a novel they were submitting to publishers," recalled Grau. "I asked to see it, got the last meeting on her schedule, hours before she was getting on a plane back to Ireland." Seven U.S. publishers participated in the auction. "Happily for us, Nuala decided to go with Riverhead," said Grau.
And so it is that O'Faolain's latest work will return to Ireland via an American editor and publisher. "We acquired world rights to My Dream of You," said Grau. "The novel is written with such truth and honesty, and its themes are so universal, it never occurred to us that it would only be of interest to Irish or Irish-American readers." It looks like the worldwide response could be borne out. My Dream of You will be published in six foreign markets so far, with more sales expected. The publisher partnered with Penguin in the U.K. and Ireland. "They are thrilled to have the opportunity to publish Nuala," Grau said. My Dream of You will be published on February 19 with a 125,000-copy first printing. "We feel confident that this is the right number and hope it expresses our belief in her and our commitment to her," said Grau.
The ample first printing will be backed by a 17-city publicity tour that will last through St. Patrick's Day. "Booksellers were clamoring to have her back again," said Grau, "and we wanted to accommodate as many of them as possible."
--Dermot McEvoy

Early reaction suggests that Fast Food Nation might do more than just "work." For one, the media are going to be all over it. According to Whitney Peeling, Houghton senior publicist, it was all anyone inquired about during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Already there have been mentions in the New Yorker and Time magazine. Given Schlosser's history with the Atlantic Monthly, it's not so surprising that an excerpt appears on its pages this month. But even if it wasn't a first book, the media response to Fast Food Nation would be, as Peeling put it, "remarkable." Media mentions surrounding the official January 17th pub date will be found in the New York Times, CBS's TheEarly Show, Entertainment Weekly, U.S. News & World Report and NPR's Fresh Air.

The media attention is one reason Barnes & Noble will feature Fast Food Nation this month in its "In the News" end-cap displays nationwide. "The buyers are very excited about this book," said B&N spokesperson Debra Williams, naming a second criteria for the display. Begun just a year ago, the program was designed for the kind of book either getting lots of media attention or about a subject that is in the news, she told PW. This title seems to have both going for it.

Booksellers told PW they were eager to get out the word on Fast Food Nation, a natural handsell. "There have been other books to tackle some of the issues," explained Chris Hubbuch, program coordinator at Ruminator Books in St. Paul, "but he d s it in a way that is readable and enjoyable, and that g s a long way with booksellers."

Carrie Miller, marketing director at Bibelot in Baltimore, admitted that she was a little reluctant to read Fast Food Nation. "I love Taco Bell," she said. But one of her colleagues had requested an early galley from Houghton and couldn't stop talking about it. "She'd come into my office every day with another tidbit from it," Miller told PW. "As soon as you read the introduction, you want to keep going because you want to know everything this guy has to say." Bibelot has four locations, and Miller said she expected Fast Food Nation to "fly off the shelves" at one of its stores just out of the city where "franchise stores line the streets around it."

At Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee interest in Schlosser's book spread through the company faster than a flu bug. "Christina Smith, in marketing at Houghton, was very smart," observed Schwartz's trade book buyer Daniel Golden. She gave a galley to Dan Blask who writes the nonfiction picks for Contentville. Blask passed the galley along to Nancy Quinn, Schwartz's marketing director. "Dan's enthusiasm begot Nancy's enthusiasm," said Golden, "and then she arranged to get enough galleys for the five stores." Schwartz plans to cross promote Fast Food Nation with Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (Tarcher).

Schlosser told PW that it is not his intention to get America to swear off fast food. "People can keep eating fast food after they read this [book], or they can stop eating it. I just think it's good to have your eyes wide open about the consequences," he added. Schlosser, who has written about migrant farm workers and the families of murder victims for the Atlantic Monthly, said he often finds himself writing about topics "the mainstream media d sn't want to deal with" and "on some instinctive level we don't want to confront." In this regard, Fast Food Nation sticks to his MO. The subject of the author's current book in progress? Prisons.

Astrology's Rising Star Charts a Steady Path

When it comes to astrology most of us are like a seven-year-old at Christmas time--we may scoff, but we like to hedge our bets. However, the seemingly personal and intelligent style of astrologer Susan Miller makes believers out of the most unlikely people, including some of the top names at Warner Books, which published Miller's Planets and Possibilities: Explore the World Beyond Your Sun Sign last week. With a 50,000 first printing, Warner is launching Miller as the next brand-name astrologer. Through columns on the site and in Self magazine, plus frequent appearances on TV and radio, Miller already has a following on par with the late Linda Goodman, of Sun Signs fame.

But Miller's own chart would reveal a few obstacles and fortunate twists in her path to this point. Miller started doing professional astrology when she was left to raise two young daughters on
Miller's star is
already in the media.
her own and needed a way to support herself. "I learned it from my mother," Miller told PW. Nearly 20 years later, Miller has become a rising star herself.
Aside from writing astrology columns anywhere she could, Miller earned part of her living as a photographers' representative. In this capacity, she met Warner creative director Jackie Meyer years ago. Although she didn't commission many photographers, Meyer became fast friends with Miller. Then, about eight years ago, Miller did Meyer's chart and she hit on so many things--including a far-out prediction that Meyer would give up her rent-controlled apartment in the East Village--that Meyer just had to believe. "I told her that if ever I had a chance to get her a book deal, I would," Meyer explained. It's not the kind of promise a creative director often gets to act on, but a few years later, Meyer started the Treasures imprint and signed Miller to do an astrology daybook.

Meanwhile, Miller was attracting a following online. Through her association with Warner, she launched on Pathfinder, and even though it was hard to find her exact location on the web site, she still got lots of hits. (The site is now at

Among Miller's fans at Warner is president and publisher Maureen Egan. "I love Susan Miller," Egan said. "She's done my chart and everything she says has been right on. We have a multiple-book contract and we adore her."

Support for Miller seems to be companywide. As some people walk around with phone numbers in their heads, Miller remembers people's charts. A few years ago, she dropped by the Warner booth at BEA in Chicago and mentioned to CEO Larry Kirshbaum that she saw prominent international dealings in his chart. He hadn't planned it yet, but shortly thereafter, Kirshbaum was negotiating a deal with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
--Bridget Kinsella