NEW YORK — Though no one is quite sure where or how the craving began, the Readers Digest is convinced that America's appetite for nonfiction is on the rise.
"It's something you hear all over the industry," said Barbara Morgan, editor-in-chief of Readers Digest's Condensed Books. With annual worldwide sales of about 20 million, Readers Digest Condensed Books publishes mostly fiction.
Eager to translate the perceived hunger for "real" stories into book sales, Readers Digest sent letters to about 5,000 RD book and magazine buyers asking for their preferences on future book series ideas. Asked to choose between science fiction, mystery, celebrity biography or current nonfiction, about half of the respondents chose the nonfiction series. In response, after three years of tests and studies, Readers Digest has launched Volume One of its new "Today's Best Nonfiction" series, of which Morgan is also the editor-in-chief.
The idea, said Morgan, is to cater to "busy people who want to stay on top of the stories behind the headlines," but who may not feel they have the time to devour an entire book on a particular subject. It is not Kentucky Fried Reading, she insisted; rather, the new series is an acknowledgment that many people lead lives that are painfully overscheduled, and that reading books is sometimes the casualty.
"When time is a premium, and it is more and more of a premium than ever before, people feel they have to justify the time they spend reading," Morgan said. "They can justify this, the nonfiction books, by saying, 'this is teaching me something, this is true.' " By contrast, she said, "a lot of people will think, 'well, fiction, that's a waste of time.' They seem to think, 'if I only have an hour to read, I want it to count.' "
What "counts," Morgan's studies showed, was "contemporary reading nonfiction as opposed to reference nonfiction." This means true crime, glitzy biographies of famous people and books about spying and international intrigue, drug smuggling and big-league sports.
The titles in the new nonfiction series are not necessarily best sellers. Six of the 12 books, however, that have been scheduled for the series did make it to some national best-seller list.
Purists, nasty sticklers for social significance that they are, could argue that reading an abridged version of a biography of Richard Burton, one of the selections in Volume One of "Today's Best Nonfiction," is not necessarily the key to leading a more intellectually enriched existence. Isn't this little more than People magazine in hardcover? Morgan rejoins that "it is not necessarily a matter of leading a better life. People feel that if they sit down and read a biography of Richard Burton, they are learning something about the film industry."
As for the notion of shrunken books, Morgan describes the theory behind any condensation as: "People get the author's own words--only fewer of them." She calls condensation "perhaps the most exacting and careful editing in publishing today."
The five-stage process of compressing an author's work begins with a rigorous line editing, in which sentences from the full-length version are cut word-by-word. Adjectives and appositive phrases are likely to bite the dust in this stage. Later, a second editor compares the trims to the original. A third further refines the condensation and then a "fresh eye," someone who has not seen the full-length version, reads the condensation to see whether it stands on its own. Finally, copy editors check for grammar and consistency, and researchers check for accuracy.
The formula, which Morgan insists is "no easy formula," clearly works. Worldwide annual revenues for Readers Digest books are close to $2 billion. And Morgan remains confident that nonfiction is a kind of unconquered literary prairie.
"As far as we're concerned," she said, "nonfiction is a great, wide open space for us."
On the opposite coast, meanwhile, Chronicle Books has taken the opposite approach by bringing out its first two fiction titles.
"Here we are," Chronicle Books' Mary Ann Gilderbloom said cheerfully, "counter-trending again."
Not to get too radical too quickly, Chronicle Books has eschewed current fiction, and has reissued a pair of books by Arthur Conan Doyle that were first published in 1912 and 1913. Crusty Prof. George Edward Challenger is the hero of both "The Lost World,' the book that inspired the movie, "King Kong," and "The Poison Belt." Doyle is said to have favored Challenger above all others that he created, including Sherlock Holmes.
The real reason that the Doyle titles were chosen, Jay Schaefer, a "plain vanilla" editor at Chronicle Books, revealed, is that "they were old favorites of mine from when I was a kid, and they were out of print."
Schaefer said the house is planning to do more fiction, including original fiction, in the spring. "But you had to start somewhere," he said.