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."
Christopher Dreher can be reached at email@example.com