NEW YORK — If timing is tricky in politics, it can be perilous in nonfiction publishing. House Speaker Newt Gingrich knows this--and so does the company planning to print 750,000 copies of his next book later this year.
Long after the ethical flap over the congressman's handling of a $4.5-million book advance subsides, HarperCollins could face more challenging questions: Will Americans still want to buy a book by Gingrich 10 months from now? Or will his political allure and marketability have begun to fade?
It's impossible to predict, given the public's shifting moods, and it underscores the dilemma facing publishers who test the waters with thousands of nonfiction titles each year. On the surface, books riding the waves of social trends, popular tastes and celebrity gossip might seem to have a better chance of connecting with fickle readers than fiction. Yet titles that look hot and promising today can turn into a pile of dusty remainders tomorrow.
"I think they (HarperCollins) made a smart bet with the Gingrich book, but who knows that the Republicans won't fall on their face in the first 100 days?" says a New York literary agent who specializes in nonfiction titles. "You can never guess precisely what the market will bear, especially in publishing, where it takes months or years to get a book out, not weeks."
Even instant books--those four-week wonders seeking to capitalize on breaking news--aren't always safe bets. Times Books scored a coup in 1991 with its quickie book on the Persian Gulf War, but the jury is still out on its latest venture, a paperback version of the GOP's "contract with America."
The financial risks are great, yet they don't stop American publishers from flooding the market every year with an increasingly wide range of nonfiction titles. This year will be no different, and a random survey of books slated to appear in the winter and spring shows how dramatically the field has grown.
Once dominated by biographies and social science texts, nonfiction has become a profusion of niche markets. Publishers bank on a steady demand for titles in fields such as Civil War histories, self-help books, parenting, sports and celebrity confessionals.
But even those seemingly safe bets can backfire if the market is glutted. Last year, both Hyperion and Random House rushed can't-miss books on Marlon Brando into stores, only to find that reader interest was less than they had imagined, and that the two high-profile titles essentially canceled each other out.
"In the book business, you rise or fall by an incredibly small margin," says Robert Gottlieb, executive vice president of the William Morris Agency.
"Just think of Oksana Baiul in last year's Winter Olympics. By less than one-tenth of a point, she become a millionaire celebrity instead of going back to an orphanage in the Ukraine. Welcome to the world of publishing."
It's a crapshoot, as book mavens are fond of pointing out, and publishers dream of those lucky occasions when their nonfiction titles hit the super-stores just in time to fuel or feed off a hot social controversy.
Several authors may hit that bull's-eye this winter, amid growing talk of liberalism's demise and the breakdown of voter confidence in government.
In "Stupid Government Tricks" (Plume), John J. Kohut tells outrageous stories of Washington waste, ranging from a manual for baking the perfect brownie to a study inquiring why Antarctica's penguins are gaining weight. In "The Bill" (Viking), Steven Waldman traces President Clinton's National Service legislation, from sound bite to finished product. The subtitle claims to show "What Is Corrupt, Comic, Cynical and Noble About Washington."
In a more scholarly vein, "The End of Reform" by history Prof. Alan Brinkley (Knopf) charts the historical rise and stagnation of the liberal welfare state created 50 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Enough Is Enough" says Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican and harsh critic of all things liberal, in a forthcoming book for Hyperion.
Good timing may also bless several books on the incendiary topic of race, crime and culture. "It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture" by Wendy Kaminer (Addison-Wesley) takes an ironic look at hot-button issues, ranging from the "abuse defense" popularized by the Menendez brothers to middle-class paranoia over crime. "Crime and the Politics of Hysteria" by David Anderson (Times Books) examines the Willie Horton case and its lasting impact.
Meanwhile, two competing titles, "The Bell Curve Debate" (Times Books) and "The Bell Curve Wars" (Basic Books) update America's current debate over race, genes and intelligence. On a more conciliatory note, African American scholar Cornel West and Jewish essayist Michael Lerner collaborate on "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin," a provocative give-and-take from Putnam.