BOOK EXPO OF AMERICA 2001: W., Harry Potter, and Dot-Bomb Retrenchment

An intriguing report of the biggest stories from the 2001 Book Expo of America.

FREE SPEECH, CENSORSHIP, AND GEORGE W.

The biggest story I found at this year's BEA was a suspenseful tale of deceit, intrigue, back-stabbing, and heavy-handed arm-twisting--a story that may have affected the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election.

I interviewed Jim Hatfield author of Fortunate Son, an unauthorized biography of George W. Bush.

Hatfield's book was originally published by St.Martin's in October 1999, in an 80,000-copy first run (that's pretty large). That publisher, one day after issuing a press release noting that the book was "scrupulously corroborated and meticulously fact-checked," recalled all copies from bookstores, after some apparent heavy pressure from the Bush team, both publicly and behind the scenes.

Hatfield noted, "most subjects of a hard-hitting biography will ignore it. Elder Bush [W's father, former president George H.W. Bush] gave an exclusive on Fox. He said the book claimed he bribed a judge; that's NOT in the book." And Bush Senior also claimed the Republicans had talked to Hatfield's lawyers--but Hatfield says his lawyers laughed when they heard that claim.

George W. Bush "said the book was 'ridiculous. It's science fiction.' But he never denied the cocaine allegations."

Behind the scenes, Bush's lawyers found out about Hatfield's criminal past; he had paid a man $5000 to plant a car bomb, claiming it was a favor to the boss who treated him as a son--and served time in prison for this.

Hatfield now deeply regrets this crime. "I wish I'd been more courageous. I should have said, 'it's your problem not mine, have a nice day." But, claims Hatfield, he so idolized this person that he allowed emotion to overcome judgment. When he speaks of the situation, there's still, years later, more than a hint of fear in his voice. Perhaps he worried that he would be next on the hit list if he refused.

But Hatfield had been a working writer for a long time by 1999. "I'd done eight books; my past is irrelevant." And when St. Martin's asked if the allegations were true, after the book had been published, he hotly denied it. "I was stalling for time. Just as Bush stalled for time when he was confronted with the DUI [driving under the influence of alcohol] stories, I needed time to talk with my family. They didn't know all the parts of my background. And I wanted to talk with my lawyer. I needed 24 hours." Even after losing the book and two contracts for subsequent books, Hatfield says he would lie again to buy time, if confronted with a similar situation, because he would not want to discuss his past without consulting people he trusted. Had he refused to comment, it would have been seen as acknowledging the truth.

Saying it could not trust the author anymore, St. Martin's recalled the book. Hatfield is clearly bitter: "I talked to their lawyers for three years" before the book came out. The recall "hurt from a professional point of view. I'd thought that the truth in the book would outweigh everything else."

A spokesperson from St. Martin's said the book would be "furnace fodder." Yet Hatfield claims that the books not only weren't destroyed, but that they circulate through channels such as remainder dealers and half-price websites--and he claims that St. Martin's has made money on its printing, and has not shared that money with him. "I didn't get a dime" after the advance.

Immediately after St. Martin's pulled the book off the shelves, Sander Hicks, publisher of Soft Skull Press, started negotiating with Hatfield for the rights. By January of 2000, the small house had released a first edition of 45,000 copies. And at Book Expo of America in May, 2001, the publisher released a revised edition that covers the messy 2000 election and its aftermath.

Hatfield says the installation of Bush made the U.S. a "laughingstock" internationally. "All these years, we're the beacon of democracy, and [former president] Jimmy Carter goes around observing elections to ensure the democratic process. Now we're the banana republic." Soft Skull has sold Japanese rights and is negotiating with publishers in other countries.

The original edition, says Hatfield, "foretold what we're seeing now. I'm proud of the chapters about his governorship. Houston under Bush became the smog capital of the United States; you can't breathe down there. He did two property tax cuts. Now they're going back on it" and realizing the surplus is drained.

In the interview, Hatfield called for national electoral reform. "We need to get rid of the Electoral College. If Bush had won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, they'd have pushed through getting rid of it."

If a major publisher like St. Martin's had been loyal to its author, stuck to its guns and promoted the book heavily, could it have changed the selection of Bush as president? "The conservatives painted this as a kick Bush book. It wasn't. It's a horns-and-halo biography. But I've heard from a lot of people since the election, 'God, if I'd known about this before...'"

While Fortunate Son got the biggest buzz, there were a few other books on the 2000 election: Bad News: Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of The President by Robert Shogan (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee) focuses on the role of the news media. There's also a humor book slated for fall 2001 called Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American Presidency by John Nichols with David Deschamps (there is no publisher name or contact information on the handout). Last but not least, a hard-hitting exposé from my own publisher, The Dirty Truth: The Oil and Chemical Dependency of George W. Bush: How Governor George W. Bush Sold Out Texans And The Environment to Big Business Polluters by Rick Abraham (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green)--the title and subtitles say it all.

Bush's Suppressed Biography: Pulled off the shelves by a major publisher, it was released by a small independent--the book shows Bush's military desertion, shady business dealings, and allegations of cocaine use.

Update to this story, February 2004: Hatfield committed suicide a few weeks after debuting the updated book at BEA. A Cinemax documentary, "Horns and Halos," aired on February 18, 2004, chronicling the whole story. In the movie, Hatfield comes across as a shady character with not only a criminal past, but also ethics problems in the last days of his life. At a press conference at BEA, Hatfield claimed the source for many of the allegations was none other than Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove. Despite Hatfield's own shaky crdibility, the book is well-researched and worth a look.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SCHOLARSHIP OF ITS AUTHOR

I confess, I--like my wife and children--am a Harry Potter fan. So far, there have been at least four books spinning off on the enormously popular wizard series: a thin, trashy unauthorized biography, two even thinner reference books by Rowling herself (lacking the magic of the actual stories, in my opinion)--and, new this year, a charming reference book on the history and nomenclature of Rowling's characters and creatures.

Unauthorized and published by an independent press (Lumina, of North Carolina), The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts, by David Colbert, author of "Eyewitness to America" and several other acclaimed books, is must reading for Potter fans ages 10 or so to adult. Well written, well researched, and presented in a very acessible narrative style, this book analyzes the origins of Rowling's inspirations through ancient Greek, Roman, Sanskrit, Hebrew, British and Celtic mythology, and proves that Rowling is not only one of the great storytellers of our time, but also an accoplished mythology scholar who puts nothing in by accident.

Highly recommended. If you can't find it in a bookstore, try http://www.luminapress.com

TRAVEL TALES

One trend I noticed is a growing number of travel narrative books, as opposed to guidebooks. One publisher specializes in travel horror stories: books with titles like I Should Have Stayed Home and After the Death of a Salesman. And there were several books of intrepid adventurers' true stories, including several featuring women travelers.

THE REST OF THE SHOW

Not much that stands out, and few clear trends other than downsizing. The largest publishers always have crowds in their booths, but their offerings seem to be the same old same old. Many of the really elegant art books are from small publishers; the bar has been raised again for art book production. Out on the fringes, it's much less crowded--but the energy on the show floor is very positive. Booksellers are more visible this year, and seem more eager to buy. Many publishers seem to be writing lots of orders and many booksellers are noting titles they want to order later.

Covers are all over the place, some of them looking very retro (60s & 80s style)--and a surprising number are really hard to read from a distance.

Although I expected to see a lot of books on the energy crisis, they don't seem to be here; I only found one title: Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair by Dennis Hayes (Island Press). There are a few books influenced by the election, but again, not enough to be a trend.

The foreign publisher area is very small this year, and the range of displayed titles limited. Many Latin American and European publishers that had their own booth in the past now have a few shelves in a country cooperative--and they seem for the most part more interested in selling than buying.

Booths seem to be a lot more straightforward, less hype or gimmicks.

I'd expected huge numbers of e-book service providers. They have their own area now, carved out of the small press section at the very end of the hall--but it's only three aisles and never seemed to have much action. Microsoft was one of the only large booths in that area; the focus of the show was definitely on print. However, Print On Demand technology is rapidly approaching the point where the best vendors' work is difficult to tell from conventionally printed books. There were actually more last year; perhaps there's a lot of shakeout/consolidation going on. Publishers seem to be holding back. It's still very much a show based on print.

One big surprise: the tiny presence of amazon.com, which usually has an enormous booth. It was listed in the catalog, but even though I went down that aisle several times, I never saw the booth. (I heard later that it was only big enough for one person at a time.) In general, there was a lot less hype, a lot less noise and a lot more focus on selling books.

Peace & Politics editor Shel Horowitz's blog regularly covers the intersections of politics, ethics, media, government, and business.

Shel Horowitz, webmaster of http://www.frugalfun.com, is author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World and author/publisher of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook. [Note: Shel Horowitz's reports on previous Book Expos can be found in the writing and publishing section at Down to Business Magazine.


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