Is it publishing's job to create a trend, or simply to make use of it? Sometimes, it seems that book publishers have been more skilled at the latter, producing instabooks, celebrity bios and me-too sequels that they hope will capitalize on previous success.

Those titles, after all, are what often sell in the largest numbers, and you can't blame a business for trying: in this era of lightning-fast media, being timely, current, hip is a good thing.

It's just that being pioneering and visionary is even better.

And maybe, all of a sudden, pioneering and visionary also is what sells. Starbucks's announcement last week that A Long Way Gone would be the second book in its series of in-store titles was a surprise to many book watchers. "I never would have called that one," said an editor who hasn't yet read the searing Sarah Crichton Books/FSG memoir. Why? First of all, it's a debut by an unknown, not a preordained goes-down-easy blockbuster by Mitch Albom. And it's about something serious and disturbing and foreign: the experiences of a preteen boy soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone. Clearly, the coffee chain better known for its latte than its literature thinks Americans are ready for a shot of something bracing: the chain has ordered some 100,000 copies, a good portion of them nonreturnable, for its 6,000 stores.

What makes Starbucks think this book is hot? After all, for all its charm and readability—and despite its stellar reviews in PW and elsewhere—it is not the stuff of which blockbusters are usually made. But then, neither is Dave Eggers's What Is the What, which, according to Nielsen BookScan, has sold over 45,000 copies since its late October publication (and, once the fortunes of its beleaguered distributor, PGW, are sorted out, will surely sell more). Is it that, thanks (thanks?!) to the war in Iraq, we're suddenly more aware of and interested in wars on other continents? Is it that African relief efforts have recently been in the news? Is it that Madonna's and Angelina Jolie's African adoptions have been so well publicized? Who knows? That's why we call it zeitgeist.

The books' editors would surely tell you that they weren't necessarily thinking trendy—these books were conceived, written, bought and edited long before the recent war escalation and tabloid news. And while they're surely thrilled at the public response, they just as surely couldn't have predicted it. (Full disclosure: I have personal relationships with some of the executives involved in the Beah project, and thus got on this particular bandwagon early.) What they'd tell you is that they simply chose and edited books that they believed in, books whose voices they liked, books whose stories enthralled them. In other words, they were simply doing their jobs—and doing them well.

But what a nice bonus for publishing that a corporate entity like Starbucks—a company that is nothing if not trendy—has agreed.

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