University presses pride themselves on being in effect the conscience of the go-go publishing world of today—the people wh o tend the flame of scholarly endeavor, who eschew cheap appeals to the lowest common denominator of public taste and who soldier on through an increasingly bleak landscape of dwindling sales and staff who frequently decamp for better prospects on the commercial side.
That's a simplistic generalization, of course: university press editors and publicists are adept at getting attention for their books on those occasions when the kinds of books they publish, and the public's need to know, come into rare harmonization. And that's what happened, in spades, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Suddenly it seemed that there were thousands upon thousands of eager readers for books—on such previously rarefied subjects as Islam, Afghanistan, Muslim relations with the West, the history of terrorism—that had only hundreds before.
All this found almost immediate expression in an online listing which the Association of American University Presses began last September, within days of the Trade Center attacks (see News, Sept. 24, 2001). Under the association's new communications manager Brenna McLaughlin, and at the prompting of Penn State's director, Sanford Thatcher, Books for Understanding, as the listing was called, expanded rapidly as a resource for booksellers, librarians, teachers—and, of course, media people in search of new "talking heads" among the authoritative authors on offer.
The listing is still up, and constantly expanding, according to McLaughlin, who says presses are continually adding new titles or discovering older relevant ones in their backlist. Currently there are over 650 titles, from 65 presses, listed on the site (which can be accessed at www.aaupnet.org).
The idea of offering UP books as resources on current events has now expanded to include specialized lists centering on Enron issues, such as energy policy and business ethics, and civil liberties issues, also growing out of the terrorist crisis; there is also thought, says McLaughlin, on expanding the section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, currently part of the post—September 11 listing, to a separate one of its own.
There are links to the listing in major search engines as well as via such suppliers as Baker & Taylor and Ingram, and some presses (Iowa, for example) have devoted space to it in their new catalogues. "There's been a wonderful response from the presses," says McLaughlin. "I think they were glad to be able to do something to help, to make some kind of contribution after September 11. And it's a generous response, because they're helping to sell each other's books."
A New Level of Attention
A typical response to the events of September 11 was that at Columbia University Press, which has a strong list on Middle Eastern Studies and where, according to director Bill Strachan and publicity director Madeline Gruen, the phone started ringing almost immediately after the attacks with rush orders for Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman and Terrorism and the Media by Brigitte Nacos, two backlist staples, both of which showed enormous sales jumps.
Its big title, however, is yet to appear—though it should start arriving in stores next week. It's Inside Al Qaeda by Rohan Gunaratna, a citizen of Sri Lanka who is regarded as the world's leading authority on the shadowy terrorist organization, having studied it for 10 years. This will be a publicity bonanza for Columbia, since according to Gruen, Gunaratna is to be featured two days running on CBS Evening News beginning on the book's pub date, June 18, and this has inspired more than 20,000 advance orders.
Gruen and Strachan agree that as a result of the heightened awareness the number of news programs likely to be hospitable to such books has greatly increased, and it is therefore easier to get appropriate authors on TV and radio than it used to be. "It is a fortunate change for us due to unfortunate circumstances," says Gruen, and Strachan adds that the heightened visibility of UP authors "is not an attempt to capitalize but to communicate." The press lists more than 40 backlist titles in areas related to Islam and Middle Eastern politics, with another dozen published so far this year.
One of the more extraordinary university press tales was that of Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response from Oxford. Although actually written before September 11, its title and content played so perfectly into the public interest that it became a major bestseller for the press, selling nearly 150,000 copies. An article based on the book in the New Yorker first sparked interest, then followed a flood of front-page book review coverage. An Oxford book written more recently, John Esposito's Unholy War, also inspired considerable media attention and went out last month with a first printing of 35,000 copies.
Duke University Press offered an example of quick-off-the- mark response after September 11. A book published in France (by odd coincidence, the week of September 11 itself) proved to be eerily prophetic. It was In the Name of Osama Bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the Bin Laden Brotherhood by a French expert on terrorism, Roland Jacquard. The press bought U.S. rights in October, paying its largest advance ever, and with a huge against-the-clock effort published an updated translation (including a bin Laden interview from a year ago) as early as March. Its first printing—25,000 copies—was its biggest ever.
A University of Nebraska Press author who has been making a name for himself as an authoritative commentator on Arab affairs is Kenneth M. Pollack, deputy director for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He created a lot of attention with a recent article in Foreign Affairs urging the overthrow of Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein—a notion that has now become U.S. government policy—and went on to contract for a book on the subject, Threatening Storm: The United States and Iraq, with Random House. For Nebraska he is publishing a book this fall that may be necessary reading in the Pentagon if the plan is carried out: Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948—1991, which analyzes the current Arab approach to warfare as exemplified in the military activity of various nations in the past half-century. The book was contracted before September 11, but Nebraska has expanded the press run and lowered the price to attract a wider readership.
At Harvard University Press, the story is of two titles that received a shot in the arm from the terrorist attacks, and one, long in preparation, that turned out to be highly competitive with some more glamorous-sounding ones. Two backlist titles, published in paperback 18 months ago, and which sold thousands of extra copies last fall, were The Ultimate Terrorists by Jessica Stern, an analysis of the state of terrorism today and an examination of some of its manifestations before September 11, and Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss, a study of the kind of grief experienced by people for whom the bodies of loved ones are missing—as in the case of most of the WTC victims. This enjoyed a strong sales spike, and the press also donated over 1,000 copies to various New York relief agencies.
Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by French expert Gilles Kepel had been under preparation for five years before the events of last September, and Harvard publicity director Mary Kate Marco had feared it might be eclipsed by bestselling Yale author Ahmed Rashid's similar title, or the Oxford one by Bernard Lewis (see above), both published earlier. In the event, encouragingly prominent review attention demanded a second printing after the initial 15,000.
Speaking of Yale, it had a big bestseller with Rashid's Taliban (at a time, not very long ago, when that group still seemed like a major threat), and when he followed it up with Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, the press had another hit on its hands, with 50,000 copies currently in print. Penguin made a significant six-figure deal for paperback rights and will publish next January. The press has corralled another big name for a fall title: Alan Dershowitz's Why Terrorism Works, which describes the difficulties experienced by democracies in dealing with such acts and suggests measures to prevent terrorism that are compatible with civil liberties.
The question of memorializing tragic events lies behind the biggest success the University of Texas Press has had with September 11—related titles—though the press has a notable list in Middle East Studies, which has enjoyed increased sales in recent months. Shadowed Ground: American Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy is a 1997 award-winning title that examines the national response to the sites of notable human disasters, from Gettysburg to Oklahoma City. Foote says he has found that since the terrorist attacks last year there is a trend to sanctify the sites of tragic events rather than try to obliterate them. He is revising his book on an accelerated schedule that will bring a new edition out next spring.
The University Press of Florida has a strong list in Middle East Studies and cites a number of titles that have reaped strong bookseller interest, including Against Islamic Extremism: The Writings of Muhammad Said al Ashmawy, reissued in paperback last November, and Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for paperback this fall.
All sorts of enterprising handles have been discovered for giving an extra push to books or programs that might seem to be only marginally related to current events. At Georgetown University Press, for instance, its books and related CDs and videos on learning Arabic have become its bestsellers, particularly its books on Al-Kkitaab and Alif Baa and its Arabic-English dictionaries. The University of Georgia Press promises a paperback version of Some Far and Distant Place by Jonathan Addleton, an account of life as a Christian missionary in Muslim Pakistan, and suggests that Gregory Orr's Poetry as Survival, a fall title, could remind people of its healing power in a time of stress. Fordham University Press is looking to the element that Judaism, Christianity and Islam share, and is basing a series of books called Abrahamic Dialogues on the three religions' common interest in the words and works of the prophet. In a similar vein, North Carolina's Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims by James Bill and John Alden Williams seemed like an ecumenical approach; its price was lowered, and it seemed the authors would find an ideal venue for publicity at a spring Washington conference on Iran—until Iran refused to allow key Iranian scholars to attend and the conference was canceled.
At Northeastern University Press, according to director William Frohlich, Simon Reeve's The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism has been both blessing and curse. It has helped give the press its best year ever in terms of sales and attention, while at the same time exacerbating the returns problem Northeastern has shared with most presses this year. After September 11 it printed 65,000 copies of a book originally published three years ago, got 17,000 back in returns, and saw the publicity department get overwhelmed with requests for Reeve's presence, to the extent that other titles got neglected. "Everyone warned us that wholesalers and chains don't buy carefully, and we found ourselves eating returns," Frohlich says. He had originally intended to do the book in paperback before September 11 but had been persuaded by the huge interest to keep it in hardcover; now the paperback printing, 7,500, will be smaller. Once he has sorted out the financials, the press will make a donation to people from the area bereaved by the attacks.
The University of Washington Press had a particularly timely title, published at the beginning of last September: Larry Goodson's Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban. Goodson proved adept at media appearances, and by the end of October there were 36,000 copies in print—all of a hardcover and a later paperback printing, too. But publicist Gigi Lamm has a comment that applies probably to all the scholarly works published by UPs that attained such unwonted currency in recent months: "In the long term, it's not just our Middle East Studies list that has taken on a new life. I think it has made us all consider more deeply the value of our enterprise, the importance of scholarship and the contribution of our books outside the academy."