Pile On, Publishers! Dueling Titles Hit the Shelves

“If one’s good, two (or more) would be better” might as well be the official mantra of nonfiction publishingthesedays. Name any high-profile subject and you can pretty much bet that if one house is publishing a book on it, another house won’t be far behind. Much of the time, competing titles on the same topic appear within weeks of each other.

There’s Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them , a Dutton title at the top of The Times ‘ nonfiction best-seller list, thanks in part to HarperCollins’ ridiculous legal shenanigans for the benefit of Bill O’Reilly; but there’s also Joe Conason’s successful Big Lies from St. Martin’s (now No. 26 on the Amazon best-seller list), which expresses many of the same ideas and opinions. There’s Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl? , the French philosopher’s take on the Wall Street Journal reporter’s murder, which was rushed out by its tiny American publisher, Melville House, hoping to grab some of the thunder of A Mighty Heart (Scribner), the much-buzzed-about book by the reporter’s widow, Mariane Pearl. And next month, Penguin Portfolio will publish The Smartest Guys in the Room , a book about Enron by Fortune reporter Bethany McLean, who-depending on whom you ask-may or may not have been the first reporter to figure out what was going on at that corporation. (That book was co-written with Peter Elkind; longtime Fortune contributor Joseph Nocera, who edited the original piece in the magazine, served as an adviser.) While there have already been several Enron books, this one is the second in a one-two punch begun last month when HarperCollins published 24 Days by Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller, an account of how The Wall Street Journal really broke the Enron story.

Not that there’s anything new about any of this: There were at least two books about the late-90′s Microsoft trial, a handful of titles about the muddled 2000 election and a slew, of course, about Sept. 11. Publishers will tell you there are definite advantages in having your book appear at the same time as another house’s offering on the same subject-sometimes canny book-review editors assign collective reviews when they might not have covered each book individually-but there are also obvious drawbacks. Like, for example, that by the time the books appear, the public will have lost interest in the specific “news event” and may not want to buy even one. (You’d be hard-pressed to decide which election 2000 book-Jake Tapper’s Down and Dirty or Jeffrey Toobin’s Too Close to Call -was a bigger sales disappointment.)

So why do publishers do it?

“Piling on is just a fact of publishing life,” said one executive who has contributed his fair share of it. “Especially with nonfiction, we’re all reading the same news reports and getting the same ideas. But it makes sense when the book you’re publishing has a different take on the subject. It can create dialogue.”

What he doesn’t say, but what is often the case, is that me-too publishing can also create inter-house competition and play on divisions of the personally political kind. In early 2001, Adrian Zackheim, then at HarperCollins, rushed out John Heilemann’s Pride Before the Fall to beat the appearance of Ken Auletta’s World War 3.0 from Random House-a maneuver that inspired Mr. Auletta’s agent, Esther Newberg, to embarrass him at Michael’s by sending over a plate of coins and a note implying he was a “Judas.” So it hardly seems an accident that last year, soon after Mr. Zackheim left HarperCollins to head up Penguin Portfolio and announced his acquisition of the Fortune -backed Enron book, his old house jumped to sign up 24 Days by the rival Enron mavens at The Wall Street Journal . How appropriate that a battle between business reporters should be supported by tiffing publishers.

No doubt about it: It’s a tough intramural sport, this topical publishing, and it looks to me like the winner is not necessarily the one who publishes first, or even the one with the best book. It’s all about the spin. “You buy what you buy,” one publisher said. “But then, when you look around at whatever else is out there, you have to figure out how to sell it.” Which would explain, I guess, why HarperCollins is pitching its Enron book as “a reporter’s eye view of the tug of war between journalists and a giant corporation,” an angle that would seem of limited appeal to the average reader, and Zackheim’s appears much more user-friendly: “[Our] intention is to lay the matter to rest by telling the whole story and to understand much deeper what happened,” he said.

24 Days was-big surprise-a bestseller on the Wall Street Journal list after having been excerpted in that paper. The Smartest Guys hits bookstores next month. And then it’ll be up to book buyers to decide. Never mind that both Microsoft books were bombs, and that very, very few of the Sept. 11 accounts ever saw the best-seller lists. Will it be déjà vu all over again for warring publishers?

Stay tuned.

Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time will be published next month.