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.