Will last week's tragedies change what Americans read?

Eric Darton

”Clearly, in the aftermath of the tragedy,” says Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum, ”people were glued to their TVs, the horror and propulsion of those events more compelling than any book new or old. What will be in the weeks ahead will be hard to predict.”

But some consequences are already clear, notably the impact on books sidelined by the breaking news.

Retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s ”Jack: Straight From the Gut,” a memoir that Warner Books bought for $7.1 million, went on sale that Tuesday. He, appeared on the ”Today” show at 7:32 a.m., but the launch press conference planned for later that morning in the Rainbow Room was canceled, as was an appearance Sept. 26 on ”The Tonight Show”; his 15-city speaking tour is postponed. ”We pushed back all the publicity on Jack Welch until mid-October,” says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Trade Publishing. ”But obviously we’re very upset about what’s happening to our city, and this week it’s been very hard to focus on business at all. We have a very strong fall list and we don’t want to give up, because at some point this country has to return to some kind of normalcy. We are kind of playing it by ear.”

Over and over, publishers echoed the same sense of anxiety. Simon & Schuster was scheduled to release Sen. James Jeffords’ ”My Declaration of Independence” Sept. 24. The senator released a statement explaining his publisher’s decision to postpone: ”Based on the tragic events of the last two days, I believe that it is only appropriate to delay the release of the book.” Knopf canceled its seven-city book tour for Anne Rice’s ”Blood and Gold.” HarperCollins’ ”Prime Time Emeril: More TV Dinners From America’s Favorite Chef” arrived in bookstores only four days before the attacks. ”Emeril Lagasse is a publicity-driven author and he was booked on everything,” says publisher Cathy Hemming. ”We need to work with booksellers to make sure we can keep the books out there. I’m getting word that people are going to bookstores, it’s just, what are people buying?”

In those first few days after the tragedy, readers sought out obscure titles published by small academic presses. Enormous orders poured in for Angus Kress Gillespie’s ”Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center,” published by Rutgers University Press. ”No one was buying books on Tuesday; they were calling their loved ones,” says Marlie Wasserman, director of the publishing house. ”But within the first hour of Wednesday morning, we were sold out of our 1,000 copies.” Rutgers has since gone back to press for 20,000 copies, and is now looking at orders for 43,000 more. ”We’ve never experienced anything like this, and we never want to again,” says Wasserman. ”Every publisher dreams of a sleeper book suddenly taking off, but not because of a crisis like this.”

Northeastern University Press is fielding a similar unprecedented demand for Simon Reeve’s ”The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism.” Instantly depleted of its stock, the publisher ordered 15,000 additional copies, which should ship to stores by Sept. 28. Random House dipped into an imprint’s backlist and will shortly reissue Yossef Bodansky’s ”Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America.” At Amazon.com, books about Nostradamus and his prophecies are on back order, while New York Times reporter and Middle East expert Judith Miller’s ”Germs: America’s Secret War Against Biological Weapons” has become one of the e-tailer’s top sellers.