Reading Up on September 11th
When we were small, our parents told us that instant gratification didn’t exist. Simply wishing for something doesn’t mean you’ll get it, they said; things you want really, really badly, you’ll just have to go and get yourself. Most of us reluctantly accepted this as one of life’s tough facts. Then, of course, we grew up and learned our parents’ dirty secret.
It turns out people can get what they want, and exactly when they want it. Information and entertainment—two of our most powerful and consistent cravings—are now effortlessly accessible, channeled into millions of homes and offices worldwide, and transferred to individuals via foldable computer or portable phone. For grown-ups in the Age of Information, instant gratification isn’t merely common; it’s practically the rule.
As communication technologies grow ever more rapid and widespread, many established industries are re-outfitting themselves to survive the plugged-up modern landscape. In the publishing industry, which information-technology continuously menaces with the threat of obsolescence, the pressure to give the customers what they want is heightened like never before. Increasingly, the book industry is looking to popular trends to help it chart its course; increasingly, it must respond smartly and promptly to whatever event grasps the nation’s attention.
University presses and some other small publishers have generally continued in their traditional niche of releasing academic (and rather obscure) titles. Some larger publishing houses, however, have carved out a new mold for themselves as Instant Gratification Machines of sorts, anticipating and catering to the public’s wants. And, until very recently, these two areas of the industry, the small-scale specialized press and the large-scale mainstream press, seemed destined to drift further apart.
The Rise of the “Instant Book”
So, when people look to books to satisfy their hunger for topical information, what do they want to read? For a good while, publishers believed they had the answer: entertainment, mostly, though preferably veiled as roundtable-worthy deliberation. They therefore spent much of the 90s working to combine this public desire with the industry’s newfound quick-response ethic. The result? The “instant book”—a cheap and profitable species of paperback. Furthermore, publishers pounced on so-called “hot-button” books, which dealt with the sensational, the “exclusive,” the controversial and often, the lurid side of the popular issues of the day.
It was this marketing strategy that catapulted O.J. books in 1995, Princess Diana books in 1998, Clinton books in 1999-2000 and “stolen election” books in early 2001, up the best-seller lists. That such books tended to slip quickly from the public’s radar was hardly reason for concern. Presumably, there would be another event coming along soon enough, one that could be dealt with in an identical marketing fashion. The market would be continuously supplied with new firepower, and the bestsellers would peacefully bequeath their crowns.
Events did keep coming along, for a while. And then, on Sept. 11 came The Event. As in so many other areas of society, Sept. 11 seems certain to set the bookselling industry on a very different course.
In terms of their effects on the national consciousness, the distinctions between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, say, the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, are too grossly obvious to recount. No other event in our history has been equal to the attacks, in terms of the range and complexity of questions presented, the sheer breadth of people affected and responses provoked. In other words, Sept. 11, from a publisher or bookseller’s view, carries enough weight to completely collapse any established marketing approach that may try to encompass it.
Why This Is Different
Instant books, remember, are manufactured for mass production and painless digestion (not unlike the better fast food). They provide quick, cheap relief from ignorance; and they allow for high-speed printing and easy marketing. But with Sept. 11, such slapdash methods no longer seem appropriate, for a variety of reasons. First, the state of the current crisis is extremely fluid. This was not an issue with, say, John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s death.
Publishers are cautious about ordering up material that may soon be deemed irrelevant (better to leave that to periodicals). Second, the events are so complex and interconnected that they beg to be considered in a variety of lights, which a lone book or two cannot encompass. People still want instant information, but the kind of information they seek has suddenly, dramatically increased in scope. The same person who buys a book of patriotic photographs might also be interested in a comprehensive analysis of bioterrorism.
In order to account for these expanded demands, book retailers are using new methods to inform people of their many choices of literature. Internet shopping site Amazon.com has established a compilation of Sept. 11 related titles, grouped under several broad themes, such as “Terrorism,” “Understanding Islam” and “Spiritual and Philosophical Dimensions.” The Harvard Book Store continues to display a can’t-miss-it “Sept. 11” table, where Yossef Bodansky’s Bin Laden sits next to Matteo Pericoli’s Manhattan Unfurled, an accordion-fold rendering of the Manhattan skyline. At Harvard Book Store’s fellow independent, Brookline Booksmith, the booksellers have created a special section, “Middle Eastern Current Affairs and History,” that deals with the issue from a variety of perspectives.
Customers are certainly showing interest. Booksmith bookseller Lisa Riddle reported, “Anything that has to do with the Middle East its mythology, its culture, political stuff, even poetry is just selling like crazy. People are so hungry for information that they’re snatching up anything [that] can shed light on the ethos over there.” Sales of such literature are also up at the Harvard Book Store, though as bookseller Bob Rainey acknowledged, “Among our clientele, there’s really always been an interest [in Middle Eastern affairs]; we didn’t really have to order many books specially.” At both stores, popular titles included Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong and Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. But the Koran is also enjoying brisk sales. In seeking intellectual and emotional resources for coping with the crisis no material seems too esoteric, no subject so “specialized” as to be off-limits to the curious layperson.
Indeed, it is this singular merging of popular culture and formerly arcane subject matter that makes the current state of the book industry so interesting, and so unique. In informing themselves on current affairs, it seems that the American readership is no longer settling for cheap. O.J.: 101 Theories, Conspiracies and Alibis might once have made the cut; but if, say, the name Osama was substituted for O.J., current readers would probably recoil in distaste.
Instead, people seem genuinely interested in seeking the guidance of distinguished journalists, historians and scholars in many fields. Pop culture is in an interesting phase when Germs, a study of biological weapons by three New York Times journalists, has just gone through its eighth printing; when backlist books by cultural commentators like Edward Said and Thomas Friedman are headed for re-prints; and when scholar Larry P. Goodson, whose Afghanistan’s Endless War is just out of the University of Washington Press, is being flown around the country like the Nick Hornby of wizened academia.
Given the range of quality information currently available and accessible, no wonder that few “instant books” appear anywhere in the market. Such books appear to be limited to a couple of productions by online operations, such as Booksurge.com. There are also some visual books currently in the works, the most ambitious being New York September 11, a documentation of the tragedy by 11 photographers, featuring an introduction by David Halberstam. A substantial visual product, of course, can be turned out in relatively short time. Even in going about their “quick response,” publishers seem to have quality in mind.
Racing Against Attention Spans
As publishers feel increasing pressure to keep signing up current events-related books, however, some are expressing concerns over how long interest will last. After all, a book about jihad that is pushed into production now may not be on bookstores for a year or more. Will readers still be interested, or will sales peter off in a matter of months, after all the educated info-junkies have satisfactorily filled their shelves?
Among publishers, opinions are split. Some are seeking books on currently-popular themes that carry a bonus, like a popular name. For example, novelist Caleb Carr (author of The Alienist) will produce a book on the history of terrorism for Random House. Others are banking on books that personalize the events, hoping that tales from firefighters or Afghan-Americans will have more long-term appeal. Still others are forecasting a retreat from “serious” subject matter and a surge in the popularity of entertainment and sports-themed books. “I think the events of Sept. 11 have created a new mood in America; people are yearning for decency, values and spirituality,” Rolf Zettersen, publisher of Warner Faith, recently told Publishers Weekly. “I think athletes known for leading honorable lives will be [increasingly] appealing to readers.”
Over the coming months, the bestseller list will evolve in unforeseeable directions, as changes in current affairs sway the readership’s interests. What is clear is that Americans have become more particular about the caliber of information they expect—even if they’re not sure what subject matter they crave. The reasons for the public’s new demand for thoughtful, considered analyses and subsequent aversion to the phoned-in paperbacks they so recently tolerated might make the current industry climate bittersweet. Nonetheless, who could really view the shift as anything but positive? Sept. 11 was certainly a cruel awakening. For literature’s sake, let’s hope we stay awake.