Publishers Race to Print Books on Conflict Areas

FRANKFURT, Germany -- Publishers who hit the jackpot last year with volumes on Afghanistan are now scrambling to rush out books on Iraq amid growing speculation of a U.S.-led war.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest global publishing marketplace, companies are competing to figure out trouble spots of the future. Those with a good crystal ball can reap a financial bonanza.

A little more than a year ago, journalist Ahmed Rashid had sold a few thousand copies of his then relatively obscure tome on the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. That was before the attack on the World Trade Center.

"With September 11 it completely took off," said Jonathan McDonnell, managing director of I.B. Tauris, the London-based publisher of the book.

The U.S. market has since bought 250,000 copies, and the rest of the world another 200,000, with translation rights sold to 22 countries. "For a scholarly book, this is unheard of," he said.

With publishers typically needing eight to 12 months between the time they receive a manuscript and distribute the book, keeping up with current affairs can prove a difficult task.

"You can either be very, very quick, or you have to take a long view," said Colin Robinson, publisher at the New Press in New York. "That is the skill in being a political publisher."

Interest in Afghanistan is now fading fast and world attention switching to Iraq, where the United States may launch a war over Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Some publishers have rushed new Iraq books into print, including "War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq."

Other publishers are also commissioning new Iraq books.

"In this case there has been such a build up in the States that we and one or two others have been able to get out there and try to stop the war before it starts," said Niels Hooper, publicity director at Verso, a leftist-oriented press. He said the book was published in less than five weeks, lightning speed for the industry.

"When 9/11 first happened, the books that did well were anything on Afghanistan or the Taliban," said Nancy Stewart, lead buyer for Ingram Books, a large American book wholesaler. "The Koran went way up in sales."

The trick is to have a good book out on a potential hotspot before it becomes the focus of world attention. For example, Robinson is betting that the Indo-Pakistani conflict could heat up and is planning a new book on the theme.

McDonnell said I.B. Tauris is coming out with a new book on Macedonia, believing that fresh trouble could brew in the Balkans. But he recognizes the cost of wrong bets can be high, and recalled the publication of a number of books about the Soviet Union just before its 1991 collapse. "We couldn't even sell them as remainders," he said. "Thousands of books were destroyed along with the Berlin Wall."