Why is Paul Berman, a distinguished political writer and author of the 2003 bestselling book Terror and Liberalism (Norton), publishing his newest book with a troublemaking street-lefty outfit like Soft Skull Press?

Berman's new book is Power and the Idealists: Or the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath. It examines the international New Left of the 1960s as viewed through the lives of a group of radical '60s European student activists, now grown into powerful government officials. Although the book sounds like homework, it's an intellectual political thriller that examines the choice between violent and nonviolent political activism.

Berman said he wanted to write a different kind of book than he had in the past, and he knew that a small indie house would be more receptive than the larger publishers. "The book is a literary experiment," Berman explained. "It's more like a novel, jumping back and forth in time. It looks beneath the political ideology to the human motivation."

Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash, who publishes a range of titles on radical left politics and street activism, said getting a book from a respected political author like Berman was a windfall. "It was a chance to improve the caliber of our nonfiction," he said.

To land the book, Nash gave Berman a small advance and a larger split on foreign rights sales. The September release had a first printing of 15,000—large for Soft Skull—and a 9,500-copy sell-in to the chains, the biggest in Soft Skull's history. At Frankfurt, Nash sold foreign rights in six languages. The book received a major review in the New York Times and there's a forthcoming one in the Washington Post. And according to Der Spiegel, Nash said, Bill Clinton recently told Fischer, who's a former German foreign minister, that he was up all night reading the book.

The book grew out of an essay—"The Passion of Joschka Fischer"—that Berman published in 2001 in the New Republic. Nash said Berman wandered into Soft Skull's former offices and bookstore one summer day in 2003. "I thought he was just another author complaining that we weren't carrying his books," said Nash. Instead, Berman offered him a chance to publish the essay as a book.

At first Nash wanted Berman to "crash out a 5,000-word epilogue" and get the book out to the market quickly. Instead, 18 months later, Nash said, he was "flabbergasted to get a 45,000-word page-turner in a genre not known for that." Berman explained that the book is a historical corrective that's also aimed at the hardcore political left—young activists who uncritically embrace revolutionaries like Che Guevara.

Nash said that Berman came to the right publisher. "If there's a stereotypical Soft Skull reader, it's a guy in a Che Guevara T-shirt."