The Secret Bestseller List
Well, 'tis the season . . . for war books, apparently. Although you wouldn't know it based on the local bestseller lists in New York. They are, as usual, replete with the kind of books that make you despair for mankind in other ways.
On the New York Times bestseller lists, for example, there's John Grisham's "Skipping Christmas," and David Baldacci's "The Christmas Train" -- numbers 2 and 3, respectively, on the hardcover fiction list.
"The Sopranos Family Cookbook" is number one on the "advice" list. Disgraced historians Stephen Ambrose and Joseph Ellis appear on the paperback nonfiction list. And the top three books on the paperback fiction list are so much mindlessness from Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts and James Patterson. (Both Patterson and Roberts are on the hardcover fiction list, too, at numbers 1 and 5, respectively.)
But walk into some of New York City's leading independent bookstores and ask them what their bestsellers are and you get a different story. That's what I found, anyway, when I conducted an informal survey at some of my favorite haunts. Almost all of the clerks I spoke with cited two books that were moving fast and had been for a while: Noam Chomsky's "911," published by Seven Stories Press, and "War On Iraq" by William Rivers Pitt, published by Context Books.
They also cited another book related to the whole schmear of war that started in the World Trade Center, stretched to Afghanistan and now seems about to envelope Iraq -- Bob Woodward's "Bush at War," which has indeed debuted on the bestseller list.
But there are key differences between that book and the other two. For one, Woodward's book was published by a big house (Simon & Schuster) that's part of a conglomerate (Viacom), whereas Context and Seven Stories are two very small independents.
For another, it's written by one of the leading mainstream reporters in the country, so of course it gets a lot of attention. (Except, that is, for the really preposterous parts where Woodward professes to know what people are thinking, and the parts where he reports on scenes he couldn't possibly have witnessed. Those parts, nobody ever seems to notice.)
For another, Woodward doesn't take a stance for or against war, whereas both Chomsky and Pitt are scathingly anti-war, no ifs, ands or buts. For another -- well, as mentioned, Woodward's book is on the bestseller list.
So, if Chomsky and Pitt are selling so well, how come they're not on the bestseller list too? Well, they have made some bestseller lists (the San Francisco Chronicle's, the Los Angeles Times'), and they have made what's known as the "extended" New York Times list -- a longer version of the list that appears online at the Times website. But they're not in the list that appears in the actual paper -- the most powerful list in the country (lots of stores put Times bestsellers in front of store displays), and the one that really boosts sales.
In fact, the Chomsky book mysteriously disappeared from even the "extended" list -- after spending seven weeks on it, climbing to number 17, which is two places shy of being in the newspaper version -- in the very week that "sales spiked much higher than they'd been the week before," a Seven Stories rep told me.
Calls to the Times got them no explanation. "It's a mystery," he said. "It's like the Bermuda Triangle. Our sales flew up, and we disappeared."
Meanwhile, Seven Stories has shipped a whopping 225,000 copies of the book since its November 2001 pub date, and "sales are still shining bright," with the book now in release around the world in 25 different languages. It's doing so well Chomsky and Seven Stories will release a sequel, "Power and Terror," in February.
To Context head Beau Friedlander, there's no mystery about why the mainstream media has, for the most part, ignored his book, "War on Iraq." "I don't think there's any active censorship going on -- the bottom line is the media wants to go to war. The larger mainstream media outlets have become transparently involved in political policy -- the news is being reported by General Electric and Westinghouse. And war is good for business."
It's an interesting theory, especially in light of recent hit books decrying the left-leanings of the press -- books such as Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" and Ann Coulter's "Slander," both of which, er, made the Times bestseller list and got lots of coverage.
But Friedlander says there's a "dearth" of "truly oppositional" commentary, and people have become so distrustful of the media that books like his actually pique interest. All of which, he says, proves an old book industry adage: "Word of mouth really does sell books," he says.
It's selling his, in any event. Barely a month after an initial print run of 125,000 copies, "War on Iraq" is about to go back to press for a second printing. The revolution may not be televised, nor covered by the Times, but if these two independent publishers are any indication, there will be a book about it.
Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.