Books on Hot Subjects: Trial or Triumph?

Almost anything that happens is bad for somebody and good for somebody.


Few things are more exciting for agents than finding a story in the news and putting together a book about it fast. For writers, it represents an immediate opportunity to write about a subject they may already be covering.

The Symbionese Liberation Army enabled me to agent my first book. When the SLA kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, I knew there was a book in it. So I called Alan Barnard at Bantam, where I had worked, and which was well-known for doing instant books, to see if they wanted a book on the SLA. No luck.

Then I called Bill Grose at Dell Books to see if he wanted one. He also said no, but after he hung up, Helen Meyer, who owned Dell, came into his office and asked him about doing a book on the subject. So he called me back and said yes.

Then I called Tim Findley who, with Paul Avery, was writing the banner headline stories on the abduction in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said no, although he did later coauthor a book. So I called Paul who said yes. Voila!, a sale in four phone calls. An exciting experience that took place within a day’s time.

Paul enlisted Vin McLellan, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, to collaborate with him. They wrote a proposal. I sold it, and they were off to the races. Unfortunately, Ms. Hearst didn’t get captured for nineteen months, so the story was never finished. When she was apprehended, Paul, Vin, and a typist spent two weeks working around the clock in our apartment to finish the book.

But by that time, half a dozen books on the subject had come and gone and the public had been subjected to a huge amount of media coverage, so Dell was no longer interested in an instant book on the SLA. We resold the book to John Dodds at Putnam, which brought out The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two Month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army —a first-rate 477-page book at $14.95—in 1977, three years after the event. It was too much, too late.

We had the same experience with Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs. Tim, who was wounded in Guyana in 1978, wrote a book that was hailed as “seminal, definitive, extraordinary.” But Dutton published it four years later, and weighing in at more than 500 pages, it too was more than the media-weary public wanted to know. However, the book had a second life when the Tarcher imprint at Penguin brought out an updated trade paperback edition for the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown. It did well enough to go back to press.

Making the World Better

It’s been said that when there’s a bunch of books on a subject only the first one and the best one do well. But the right books by the right authors published quickly enough can work. At one point, there were seven books about 9/11 on the Times bestseller list.

The New York Times (7/21) reported that at least six books on the Gulf disaster would starting flowing from publishers in September. Publishers are hoping that authors with platforms and different angles will enable these books to attract readers. An event of this magnitude and importance—Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it Obama’s 9/11—merits the in-depth analysis that only books can provide.

The question is whether these books can find readers, despite being about a depressing subject that the media has covered heavily and about which readers can do little or nothing. The better we understand what happened in the Gulf, the better able we will be to prevent it from happening again. Let’s hope they’re all bestsellers. They will be serving the highest mission books have: making the world a better place. If you’re thinking about writing a book on a hot topic, gauge carefully how salable it will when your book comes out.


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