NEW YORK — Sasha Alyson was chilled when he assimilated the gruesome prediction: Within five years, one-third of his friends might be dead from AIDS.
His imagination took a macabre turn. Of his 10 closest friends, which three would succumb? Soon thereafter, one of those three was diagnosed and told his death from AIDS was imminent.
Alyson, founder and head of a small Boston publishing house specializing in books for a lesbian and gay audience, wondered how he and his colleagues in publishing could "put our skills to use" to deal with the growing crisis.
The result, for Alyson, was "You CAN Do Something About AIDS," a slender, 96-page book he expects to see available in bookstores in early May. Its distinction, Alyson said in a telephone interview, lies less in its "practical, concrete" approach to "what the average person" can do about AIDS or in its projected 150,000-copy first-run printing than in the fact that it will be published for free, distributed for free and made available in bookstores for free. Its 35 contributors, including advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, novelist James Carroll, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, fashion model Beverly Johnson, U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker, Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and an entire high school class in Springfield, Vt., all have offered their entries for free.
"It's crazy and it's brave," said Jane Isay, editorial director of Addison Wesley Books in New York. "It's also wonderful."
Alyson's effort reflects a growing proliferation of books about AIDS. Many say the flood of books on a subject once treated gingerly by mainstream publishers began with the huge success last fall of San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic" (St. Martin's Press). The book shot to best-seller lists, proving that a book about an illness commonly regarded as a gay disease could earn what publishers call crossover appeal with a wide audience.
"That was the book that finally made people aware of AIDS in all its ramifications--as a personal problem, as a government problem, as a public health problem and as a how-do-you-treat people problem," said Caroline Reidy, publisher of Vintage Books here.
"I could see that book had very, very broad appeal," said Nancy Neiman, publisher of Warner Books. "It showed that people were hungry for information."
Neiman's own Warner Books had big success in 1985 with a paperback called "The AIDS Epidemic," written by James Slaff MD and John Brubaker. That book, one of the first to address the question of heterosexuals and AIDS, was published as an instant book and now numbers 337,000 copies in print. But another Warner paperback, "Conquering AIDS Now" by Scott J. Gregory and Bianca Leonardo, came out in 1986 and has just 15,000 copies in print.
Still, the publishing floodgates seem to have opened to AIDS, as publishing house after publishing house adds books on the topic to its forthcoming lists. Scholarly Yale University Press has a book out on the legal ramifications of AIDS; Harvard University Press has two books on AIDS on its next list. A novel due this summer from Putnam's, "At Risk" by Alice Hoffman, courts the so-called women's-book audience as it deals with AIDS and children.
Manuals on how friends and family members should respond to people with AIDS have come out from Crown Books and New American Library, among others, and at least two houses have books about women and AIDS on their spring or fall lists.
Stonewall-in-Editions, a line of nonfiction gay books within St. Martin's, is coming out with a sex advisory book, "Terrific Sex in Fearful Times," geared to the era of AIDS. In "Safe Sex in a Dangerous World: Understanding and Coping With the Threat of AIDS" (Vintage), television physician Dr. Art Ulene tackled the same topic for a mainstream audience. Ulene's book has sold about 50,000 copies since its publication last spring.
In March, the sex-manual team of Masters and Johnson, along with physician Robert Kolodny, also will take on the subject with "Crisis: Sex in the Age of AIDS," to be published by Grove Press.
The giant NAMES project quilt, emblazoned with the names of more than 3,000 AIDS victims, will be the subject of a Pocket Books hard-cover book, to be published May 11. Pocket Books publisher and president Irwyn Applebaum expressed confidence that the $22.95 book, the profits from which will be returned to the NAMES project, will "enhance the public's awareness (of AIDS) and contribute to the national healing process."
As books about AIDS become more acceptable, even appealing, to a broader audience, the AIDS memoir is yet another genre marching full force into the publishing arena.
"Illness, like war, has its correspondents," Hill & Wang publisher Steve Wasserman said. "That's what we're seeing, reports from the front."