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Economy is red-hot -- among publishers

March 26, 2008|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — About a year ago, one of America's bestselling business books was Michael Corbett's "Find It, Fix It, Flip It!: Make Millions in Real Estate -- One House at a Time." Today, one of the hot finance titles picked up for publication is Stephen Leeb's "Game Over: How the Collapsing Economy Will Shrink Your Wealth by 50% Unless You Know What to Do."

As the U.S. economy deteriorates and millions wrestle with questions about their faltering 401(k)s and when -- or if -- to cash out long-term stock investments, major publishers are scrambling to cash in.

They're working feverishly to find the next "big book" that reflects a more sobering view of the economy and offers solutions to help Americans survive the current fiscal woes.

In a 48-hour period last week, Penguin Portfolio outhustled rival publishers to make a preemptive buy of "The New New Deal" by financial guru Eric Janszen; Doubleday and HarperCollins beat the drums about their forthcoming books on the Bear Stearns Cos. collapse; and Business Plus, an imprint of Grand Central, jumped at the chance to acquire Leeb's title, which makes no bones about the health of the nation's economy.

"The next 10 to 15 years are going to severely test America in a way we haven't been tested before," said Leeb, president of investment firm Leeb Capital Management Inc. and publisher of the Complete Investor newsletter.

"My book isn't doom and gloom," Leeb said. "It doesn't say, 'Pack up all the canned goods and head to the country.' But there's no painless way out of this mess. The problem is people are in a state of denial. The music has stopped, and we're still dancing."

The message, said Grand Central publisher Rick Wolff, is that "these problems aren't going away, and it's not some kind of gee-whiz concern. The old economy is like a video game. It's over."

All of these new business books will sound an alarm. But most won't be appearing until 2009, so publishers are rushing to reissue older titles that predicted worsening conditions and seem relevant now.

Elsewhere, publishing houses lucky enough to have new books about fiscal turbulence set to appear in the next few months will be promoting them heavily.

"There's a growing appetite for information out there, because people want to know what they should do," said Adrian Zackheim, head of Penguin Portfolio.

Business books have traditionally covered a broad landscape, from the art of negotiating deals and picking stocks to bestselling portraits of media-savvy moguls, such as Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch.

There have been classic contrarian takes on how to succeed in business ("What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School" by Mark M. McCormick) and primers on revolutionizing the workplace ("Up the Organization: How to Stop Management from Stifling People and Strangling Productivity" by Robert Townsend).

If there's a unifying thread, it's that these books reflect the economic zeitgeist. When U.S. anxiety grew over its economic competition with Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, books such as David Halberstam's "The Reckoning" and Lester Thurow's "Head to Head" were hugely popular.

But it can be risky for publishers to place bets on such books now. Even the most knowledgeable experts are confused about how to fix the economy. There's a lag time of at least a year between signing up a new title and shipping it to stores, and few can predict what the fiscal situation will be in 12 months or what readers will be willing to buy.

"It takes time to decide which book you should heavily promote, let alone which events should be the basis for a book," said Roger Scholl, editorial director of Doubleday's business imprint. "Although we can rush things out quickly, that's not how you get thoughtful analysis."

Yet hope springs eternal, even when the market is in turmoil. "The goal in publishing is to stake out your turf as quickly as possible," Grand Central's Wolff said. "I haven't seen an avalanche of submissions yet for the next big economics book. But it's early. It's only 1 p.m. I might see six of them this afternoon, and the floodgates could open."

New York publishers, like Hollywood producers, are often guided by past successes in deciding which new projects to greenlight -- a strategy that can easily backfire.

Some editors are trying to read the current moment with fresh eyes: Although they would kill for the chance to publish the next "Barbarians at the Gate," they are also leery of epic yarns about economic scandals that can seem dated when they finally appear.

For that reason, both Doubleday and HarperCollins have suggested that their forthcoming books about Bear Stearns will use the investment bank's collapse as a mirror image of the larger problems ailing the U.S. economy.

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