Peace on the page

Christopher Dreher (

In the middle of February at the Harvard Coop, bookseller Joseph Nathan decided to set up a table of books on current events, a compilation of titles he thought might interest potential readers. The response from customers surprised him. Not only did the books sell well, but many of the antiwar books and slim paperbacks of more radical or strident politics sold briskly. In fact, copies of one newly published book, Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich’s Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You (Context Books, 2003), disappeared within 12 hours.

"There was just this hole there on the table [where the book used to be]," Nathan remembers. "Once you put the books out, they stimulate people. People do want to hear new voices." He says he’s planning to order larger quantities of antiwar books to keep up with the demand.

And the demand isn’t just increasing in Harvard Square, where it could be argued that Cambridge liberalism and nearby universities offer a built-in audience for the books. Across the country, people who had never read Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal, who had never before sought out dissident opinion or hard political analysis, are looking at new sources of information.

"They’re selling everywhere," says Kim Wylie, senior vice-president and director of national accounts at Publishers Group West, a distributor that ships books to both large chains and independents. "It’s not just independents, but at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, airports, libraries. The success is evenly distributed in every single channel. That’s what’s so damned impressive."

To put it in perspective, it’s certainly not a trend on the scale of Harry Potter — though there have been a number of surprise bestsellers, including Chomsky’s 9-11 (Seven Stories Press, 2001) and William Rivers Pitt’s War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You To Know (Context Books, 2002). Still, Wylie says her company has been shipping increasing numbers of these titles, often five to 10 times as many as a few years ago. "There’s an audience that hasn’t been tapped before," she says. "The events of September 11 and other international events since then have opened up the door." Wherever the new readers are coming from — whether it’s an outgrowth of the antiwar and anti-globalization movements or just average Americans wanting to know more than they get from mainstream media during these anxious, uncertain times — more books of dissident opinion and politics are selling than ever.

Neil Ortenberg, a senior vice-president at Avalon Publishing Group — which includes Thunder’s Mouth Press and Nation Books under its umbrella — says that since September 11, his company has seen three books of critical analysis and politics become New York Times bestsellers. While he’d hardly deduce that dozens more of these types of books are going to become bestsellers, he does say that "there’s a hunger for info connected to issues of the day and related to 9/11."

"As long as there’s a threat that people consider personal," adds Ortenberg, whose office is four blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood, "as long as there’s all this threatening news, people will be interested in finding out what the hell is happening."

While large corporate publishers have put out books that either support war in Iraq or offer neutral reports of American political power — including Kenneth M. Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002) and Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (Simon & Schuster, 2002) — the overtly dissident or activist books, with their tirades against US policy, scathing critiques of the Bush administration and its policies, and protests against a potential war with Iraq, come almost exclusively from small publishers.

From late February through April, a host of new antiwar books are appearing: Target Iraq; Against War with Iraq: An Anti-war Primer, by Michael Ratner et al., and Chomsky’s Power and Terror: Post 9-11 Talks and Interviews (both from Seven Stories Press); Arundhati Roy’s War Talk and Chomsky’s Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World (both from South End Press); and others. Most are "instant" books or pamphlet-style productions — paperback originals of edited interviews or lecture reprints, or essay-length books — put together with whirlwind speed in as little as a few months from conception to final product.

As a group, the publishers of these books have an unmistakable left-leaning, activist stance — claiming to unveil lies and deceit perpetuated by the government, corporations, the mainstream media, or any combination of the three — and use publishing as a form of protest. Their tone and bent are a throwback to an earlier age, to the pamphleteering tradition of Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, and others. "I’d do anything legal to screw with the Bush administration," says Beau Friedlander, publisher of Context Books. "They’re totally nefarious. We’ve had our fair share of leaders who don’t care, but Bush brings not caring to a new level."

But it isn’t that these small publishers are rushing to fill a need; rather, they’re doing what they’ve always done. Seven Stories Press, Context Books, Nation Books, Thunder’s Mouth Press, South End Press, the New Press, and other small publishers who have for years put out books of dissident opinion without attracting widespread attention or recognition have seen their territory become a hotter commodity over the past 18 months. Yet while the more conservative Bush at War and The Threatening Storm are the subjects of reviews and articles in the mainstream press, the activist and dissident books generally aren’t.

"They’ve been marginalized in the mainstream media," says Ortenberg. "[The media] don’t want to touch it. It’s too difficult for them." He says there are a number of reasons why the mainstream press has virtually ignored these books, but dismisses the idea of any sort of overt conspiracy. "I don’t think they’re smart enough or organized enough for any concerted effort."

As to why these titles have primarily been in the small publishers’ domain, there are a number of explanations. For starters, the profit margins for these types of books haven’t been significant enough to interest larger publishers, who have greater overhead costs and must sell more copies per title than these books generally do. Another is a matter of speed, which is crucial for books of this political nature, and smaller publishers are generally nimbler than larger ones. Chomsky’s 9-11, for one, appeared in bookstores six weeks after the tragedy, and Target Iraq was conceived and edited before Christmas, and in stores by late January.

Yet another reason is that these smaller presses operate with a different set of standards than larger publishers, who after years of increased conglomeration have become more sensitive to a book’s market potential than its intellectual or social value. Small publishers who put out dissident titles are characterized by their belief in the value of the books they publish, and they publish what they think is worthy — often regardless of its potential commercial value.
Peace on the page (Continued)


And people are reading them. With hardly any reviews or mentions in the mainstream press, sales of Seven Stories Press’s Open Media Pamphlet Series have risen 150 percent, and sales of its other titles are growing 25 percent per year. Whereas before the events of September 11, Seven Stories books might have been pigeonholed as required reading for the academic crowd or for tree-hugging activists, they’re now being considered by a larger audience.

In fact, Greg Ruggiero, co-founder and director of the Open Media Pamphlet Series, which he founded in 1991 to protest the Gulf War and brought to Seven Stories in 1996 as an imprint, says copies of his series can be found in the Los Angeles International Airport and other venues that have never before been home to books of political dissent. "We’re providing a reliable counter-narrative to the mainstream news," says Ruggiero. "It’s challenged in mainstream media, but it’s understood by the public. We’re entering into the fray in order to practice democracy."

Changes in technology have also contributed to the books’ and pamphlets’ wider audience. Now, regular people whose reading tastes may more often run to Stephen King and TV Guide can jump on the Internet to read works of political dissent. They’re also promoted through e-mail mailing lists and on weblogs, whose word-of-mouth impact can greatly help book sales.

Carl Lennertz, former publisher-program director for BookSense, a marketing program for independent booksellers, who recently became a vice-president of marketing at HarperCollins, says there are a number of factors that make activist books attractive to readers, including their paperback format, low price, and generally short length. A good example is 9-11, which boasted all these advantages. Though it received virtually no notice in the mainstream media, it has so far sold more than 252,000 copies in English alone, with translations published in 26 other languages around the world; it was a bestseller in Italy, Japan, Spain, and Canada, and was reviewed and written about in the publications of record in countries worldwide.

But while it appeared on various American bestseller lists, including the New York Times extended list, 9-11 was largely ignored by the mainstream media in the United States, and the scant attention it did get was often tinged with skepticism or distaste. Dennis Loy Johnson, who runs Melville House Press and operates the "MobyLives" daily blog about the publishing industry, wrote a December column about "The Secret Bestseller List," and the fact that 9-11 and War on Iraq were understated on the major lists and under-covered as a cultural phenomenon. "It was astounding because they got worldwide sales," says Johnson. "It shows how the book industry is out of touch, that mass media is out of touch."

Context Books’ Friedlander agrees. "War on Iraq sold 100,000 books," he says. "You don’t really expect the instant books to be covered in the book sections, but you’d think they would find room somewhere off the book page."

Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon believes something else explains the lack of attention given to activist books. "We have an extremist president who defines what’s acceptable and not for citizens to do," he says. "Major media is sensitive to that."

Though he’s been pleased with some of the coverage his recent books have received, editor Carl Bromley — whose Nation Books is putting together a book of antiwar poetry, Poets Against the War, which will appear in bookstores in April — asserts that "in penetrating the mainstream, everything is stacked up against you. We take it as given that the odds are against us. We have no illusions that we’ll get blanket coverage. If we [published] books on the expectation that they would ignite the media, we’d get nowhere."

Colin Robinson, a former managing director at Verso and current publisher of the small, nonprofit New Press, which puts out sociopolitical books, agrees. "We don’t expect a great deal from the mainstream," he says. "We sell without their attention. With books of incisive politics there is often a deafening silence. We get much more coverage in the foreign press.

"There is an extraordinary uniform[ity] in ownership of American media," Robinson adds. "It’s owned by few corporations. The corporations are probably not sympathetic [to our ideas]. It’s not explicitly censorship, but people who write and edit these things know which side their bread is buttered on."

Sometimes, though, it’s simply a matter of logistics. For one, book reviews at many mainstream publications are often assigned far in advance. "By the time I’d be able to get a review of that book in the section," says one editor at a large book review, who wishes to remain anonymous, of why he didn’t review Context’s Target Iraq, "we’ll already be flying sorties all over Baghdad."

STILL, Despite the fact that large publishers have not yet delved into the market, it’s possible that with the increasing interest in these books, they will in the future. "I’m sure there are acquisition people at the big houses who have taken notice and started to look in that direction," says Neil Ortenberg.

"There is a rapidly growing antiwar movement here, coming out of the anti-globalization movement," adds Robinson. "It’s a very substantial market. If it continues, HarperCollins will try to serve it."

Which, in the end, might scuttle the value these books have in the first place. Consider what almost happened to Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! (Regan Books, 2002), which archly criticized everything from corporate greed to the Florida elections to racism in America, and was especially critical of President Bush. It was scheduled to be in bookstores in September 2001, but after the events of 9/11, its publisher, an imprint of HarperCollins, held it back, telling Moore that its contents were no longer appropriate. The publisher planned to destroy tens of thousands of books already warehoused and asked Moore to rewrite large sections to make it less offensive during a time of national crisis. Moore refused; after an ensuing fight, the publisher relented and put out the book months later. It went on to become a huge bestseller, but it almost didn’t see the light of day.

Whether or not larger publishers jump in, and whether or not the mainstream press ends up taking greater interest in radical books, the current speed of changing world events seems to guarantee that the audience for these types of books will continue to grow. "As long as we live in a world on the brink of international disaster, I don’t think [these books are] going to go away," says Ortenberg. "People are drawn to getting more information about the issues.

"The world may be going to hell in a hand basket," Robinson adds, "but for small independent publishers, it’s quite bright."

Extra info: 
Support for Radical Press view of world grows--quietly--in the US despite the Bush administration