When Avalon's Bill Newlin first began to hear about the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina, he wondered if he needed to scrap his New Orleans—related projects. Avalon had a travel guide and a New Orleans novel scheduled for 2006, and the unfolding catastrophe had the senior v-p worried. "We would have conversations and say, 'It feels odd, how do we do this? How does one write about a city and a landmark that is forever changed?' "
Newlin's dilemma is not uncommon among publishing industry members. Hurricane Katrina has stoked readers' appetite for one of America's most literary cities. But it has made the place both a sensitive subject and a moving target. So around the book business, publishers are rescheduling, authors are rewriting and the industry is tangling with questions of role and taste. A buyer at a major chain was described as being under "conflicting pressures" about promoting New Orleans titles. And travel houses are being forced to be as news-conscious as a political publisher, as events turn a city's recent past into ancient history.
Avalon decided to keep one book on track, Patty Friedmann's Side Effects, "a New Orleans love story." (Friedmann chose not to evacuate and only recently escaped by boat.) The publisher is still publishing the new edition of its Moon Handbook late next year, but plans to change it dramatically.
At Algonquin, editors thought about postponing Diane Gessler's Very New Orleans, a painter's ode to the city, from January, but decided against it. The house also added new pieces to the essay collection New Orleans Mon Amourby 20-year resident Andre Codrescu and moved it up, first from June to April, then to January, and made it a lead title. "Initially, we thought it could be perceived as opportunistic and crass," said spokesman Michael Taeckens. "But there are a lot of people who have never been to New Orleans and want to know what it was like."
Andrews McMeel is doing an October book with CNN. And Norton is holding to a March pub of Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, despite the unlikelihood of a spring Jazz Fest.
Not all houses, though, are rushing to keep up. G.K. Darby, who runs Garrett County Press, was lucky—sort of. He moved the press from New Orleans to Philly just a month before the disaster. But the "shell-shocked" N.O. native has done no publicity; instead, he's "muddled along one drink at a time." (The press's Letters from New Orleans by NYT's Rob Walker is available; the author is donating profits.)
Lonely Planet, too, has been forced to wait out the news. While, in a rare move, it's adding a first-person chapter to its next New Orleans guidebook, it has delayed the title from next September to November, and doesn't know when it can get writer Tom Downs, scheduled to start research next month, into the city. "We need to completely re-examine it. We don't even know what's worth reporting," said editor Jay Cooke.
Indeed, decisions are being made with thumbs to the wind; many say they can't know how the city will look or what the public will want by the time books come out.
Still, the lags could be a boon. Unlike other media, awash in disaster images, publishers say their role is to help the public see the city not for its tragic present but its romantic past. This, they say, can in turn help its future. "We need to deliver the message that this is a place you should go to now," Cooke said. "We have a responsibility to get New Orleans back on its feet."