Quickie books on the Russian revolution -- Publishers try to capitalize on Soviet events with a book rush

Besides upsetting the balance of world power, trouble in the Kremlin has spelled upheaval in America’s instant-book market, that competitive arena in which publishers scramble to orchestrate lucrative literary coups by turning out quickies — books that take only a few months, rather than a year or more, to go from proposal to print. Random House is the first into the fray, announcing plans to publish two quickie Soviet books that don’t even have titles yet. Other instant proposals are also making the rounds. Dell editorial director Leslie Schnur says she received her first quickie pitch the morning after the coup, though she’s still waiting and watching as the Soviet epic unfolds. ”The public has a short attention span,” she says. ”There’s a month or so to make these books happen and in that time extraordinary events can occur that will divert the public’s focus.”

Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s publicity director, is also waiting — eagerly. ”The crisis makes a great instant book,” he says. ”It’s a wonderful human drama with a cataclysmic impact on world events.”

Random House decided to jump-start its two books days after the coup ended. The first will be an ”open letter to the Soviet leadership” by Jack F. Matlock Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Matlock’s analysis of perestroika will be released later this fall. In December, Random House will also issue a first-person account of ”the three days that shook the world,” by Soviet TV commentator Vladimir Pozner, whose name was allegedly on the Emergency Committee’s hit list.

Of course, the Russian revolution will make books that were already under way seem hot off the press. Among the most anticipated works: Raisa Gorbachev’s autobiography from HarperCollins, aptly titled I Hope, scheduled for publication Sept. 5. Originally listed for January, Dutton’s Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat has been pushed up to early October. Written by John Morrison, the book characterizes Yeltsin as a ”Soviet-style Horatio Alger” and chronicles his struggle with Gorbachev. A Yeltsin autobiography, Against the Grain, published by Summit Books in March 1990, is also expected to get a boost from world events.

Publishers with books in print are patting themselves on the back for keeping an eye on the crystal ball. For those caught with their presses down, however, the wisdom of producing instant titles remains to be proven. Though at least 24 instant titles were published about the 44-day gulf war, only one surfaced on the best-seller list; Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie’s Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf has sold 800,000 copies to date. And many gulf war books were criticized for failing to provide in-depth analysis of news events — a hole into which many a quickie has fallen.

Yet instant books on world events will undoubtedly continue to be a viable literary form long after the Soviet crisis. ”I think it’s important for some publishers to retain the ability to react swiftly to breaking news,” says Steve Wasserman, editorial director of Times Books, which published Crisis in the Gulf. On the other hand, Wasserman admits, ”It’s a challenge to publish quickly an enduring work by an author who has something genuinely worthwhile to say.” Wasserman cautions that publishers, not unlike the leaders of military juntas, should be wary of producing works that have ”the half-life of a tsetse fly.”