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Seeking answers through books

Bookstores and printing presses rush to keep up with demand for everything from the QURAN to the Bible to anything that can make sense of, bring comfort to or add insight into the tragic events of Sept. 11

Sunday, October 07, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As the incomprehensible images spattered across TV screens, the research began.

The Book Center at the University of Pittsburgh, like many other booksellers, has been stocking its shelves with titles to help answer the question, "Why?" A surge in sales of books on Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, as well as the Bible and the Quran, has meant publishers must also scramble to keep up with demand. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Russell Kierzkowski, trade department manager for The Book Center at the University of Pittsburgh, started poring over lists. Books of solace and hope. Books to explain where the heck Afghanistan is. Books that might help answer the question, "Why do they hate us so much?"

Almost four weeks later, the work continues.

The Oakland bookstore's staff has ordered -- and already received -- numerous titles. Publishers call daily, offering new releases or announcing they're running off thousands of copies of out-of-print books back in demand. Behind the scenes, printers have cut delivery times in half and authors are rapidly revising chapters to reflect the new reality. * The publishing industry kicked into gear almost as rapidly as the military deployed its forces.

"Fortunately, we still have a society that's been oriented to reading," said Kierzkowski.

For now, the demand is there. One Christian book chain reported Bible sales rose 27 percent the week of Sept. 17. Publishers of everything from the Quran (or the Koran) to textbooks on terrorism and holy war report a crush of sales, in some cases depleting their supplies.

In a few months, depending on what happens next in world affairs, there could be too many. Kierzkowski predicted, "It's just a matter of time before we have a glut of books."

Speeding with care

Generally, a Stephen King novel will outsell a book on Islamic fundamentalism every time. Despite the recent events, that's not likely to change.

So when Penn State University Press found buyers calling about its 1998 title "The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions," it moved cautiously. A 500-copy reprint order already in the works was doubled to 1,000.

The point, publishers said, is to fill the need but not to go overboard.

"We're not going to print some monster amount," said Pamela Clements, vice president of marketing for Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tenn. Clements said just-in-time inventory supply systems developed over the last couple of years enable publishers to do a series of smaller print runs as needed instead of one or two mammoth ones that can cost a lot at the clearance table.

But in a scenario that couldn't have been predicted two months ago, this Christian-oriented publisher could end up with two versions of the same book in stores at the same time.

Recent top sellers

The Bible

The Quran

"The Battle for Jerusalem,"
by John Hagee

"Silent No More,"
by Paul Findley

"Prayer of Jabez,"
by Bruce H. Wilkinson

"Left Behind" series,
by Tim F. LaHaye,
Jerry B. Jenkins

"When God Doesn't Make Sense,"
by James C. Dobson

"Chicken Soup for the Soul,"
by Jack Canfield


"The Battle for Jerusalem," written by John Hagee, was released in April. In it, the evangelical Christian pastor writes that the Bible prophesies are being fulfilled by recent events and he makes his case for supporting Israel over the forces of Islam.

A paperback version came out just before the attacks, but the staff at the publishing house thought the book might do better with some changes. "We were already in discussions about do we repackage it? Do we leave it alone?" said Clements.

Post-attack, they were decisive. "This happened and we said, 'You know now is the time,' " Clements said.

When they called Hagee about adding a chapter, he asked them to send questions that people wanted answered in light of the attacks. Within 10 days, Hagee had written his addition. It was edited and rushed to the printer.

The revised book should arrive in stores in November with a new name, "Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and The Role of Terrorism In The Last Days."

The facts of Islam

Readers who may never have been inside a mosque have numerous questions about Islam and the tenets of the religion of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Every single Family Christian Stores -- all 350, including seven in the Pittsburgh area -- sold out of books discussing Islam the week of Sept. 17.

Orders have also been picking up at Amana Publications, a small 20-year-old publisher in Beltsville, Md., which specializes in Islamic books.

One of Amana's more successful writers is a former Illinois congressman, Paul Findley. His latest book just came out in July, and is already going into a second printing of 10,000. "Silent No More: Confronting America's False Images of Islam," is being serialized in many of the major Arab-language newspapers and made the Amazon.com best-seller list not long after the attacks.

Amana considers itself the largest North American publisher of the (it prefers Qur'an), usually selling about 100,000 annually. Sales there are up as well.

"The good thing is that for the first time people really want to find out for themselves," said the spokesman, who gave his title as director of publications but did not want to be identified by name.

Clearly a publisher with a mission, Amana claims it has had problems getting its books into mainstream stores although its authors could contribute to an informed debate.

"We have to stamp out terrorism," said the spokesman. "We have to go to the root of the causes."

The need

Again and again, publishers cite a sense of mission in their decisions to reprint or rush ahead with a work scheduled for later issue. Yet they worry about crossing the line.

While Thomas Nelson Publishers is rushing out the Hagee book, the publisher has passed on chances to do several other reprints. The company took an especially close look this time at what would meet a need but not appear opportunistic.

In the normal run of things, it might be quite appropriate to rush a book out to take advantage of interest in a subject. That's called a business opportunity.

But the events of Sept. 11 are a national tragedy. "We have really examined our motives," Clements said. "This is different. This is our world."

Still, investors apparently believe readers will be looking for the kind of products Thomas Nelson delivers. The company's stock has been rising and is trading near its 52-week high of $8.90.

Religious publishing houses, in particular, are unlikely to pull back, said Lynn Garrett, religion editor for Publishers Weekly magazine. "They're not shy about saying, here, this is a tragic event. People have needs. We want to serve those needs."

In some cases, that might call for the technique known in the industry as crashing a book. That speeds up a release originally scheduled for, say, April, and now pushed to November. Another industry term refers to "instant" books, a description that might apply to the tributes to the World Trade Center already coming out.

"In publishing, timing is all," said Garrett.

Tyndale House Publishers, in Illinois, is fast-tracking 100,000 new copies of a 1994 release by Christian author James Dobson. "When God Doesn't Make Sense," a reassuring treatise which has sold 1.2 million copies already, will be re-released by early November.

Zondervan, out of Grand Rapids, Mich., has printed 775,000 copies of its 1996 title "Where Is God When It Hurts." Part of the proceeds will go to charity, and the books are expected to go into mainstream stores as well as niche Christian locations.

Non-religious publishers feel a sense of mission, as well. Many of the nation's university presses have assembled lists of scholarly works that might offer insight.

"This is the sort of information that university presses publish all the time," said Tony Sanfilippo, marketing and sales manager for the Penn State University Press. "But normally, no one cares about it."

The State College publisher's 652-page textbook, "Terrorism in Context," presents an academic examination of the topic from the 19th century to the present. Sold out in recent weeks, a reprint order is due in Oct. 20.

The search for information isn't limited to Americans, of course. The Associated Press recently reported sales are up in many Arab countries of a book titled, "Bin Laden, Al-Jazeera -- and I." It includes a 54-page transcript of a 1998 interview with the now-famous Osama bin Laden.

Publishers may even now be trying to get the English translation rights.

Sorting it out

A selection from Oprah Winfrey's reading list rode the top of Amazon.com's best sellers for much of last week. "The Corrections," by Jonathan Franzen, was described on the site as an exhilarating novel with sexy comic brio.

Perhaps this is what is meant by returning to normal.

But the new sensitivities were evident in other top sellers. At No. 4 on Thursday, "War in a Time of Peace," by David Halberstam. No. 6 went to the latest installment of the popular "Left Behind" fiction series based on the Revelations chapter of the Bible. No. 9 was "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."

Also popular, "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," "Jihad!," and a not-yet-released book on the Clinton administration by conservative commentator and hijacking victim Barbara Olson.

In fact, buyers could have a hard time sorting through all the titles being scanned by readers.

The Dalai Lama's book on practicing compassion in everyday life has shown up on various lists, as has Rabbi Harold Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."

Duquesne University's bookstore had trouble keeping items in stock on Islam, Afghanistan and terrorism. At Half Price Books along McKnight Road, the books on 16th century mystic Nostradamus were snapped up. Customers at the Book Country stores, a discount group based in Penn Hills, keep asking for anything on the Middle East. A Borders spokeswoman said sales from the religion and spiritual sections had been heading up anyway, and recent weeks have just increased that.

These days, the staff at the Pitt book center spends its time looking for any mention of authors or pertinent books during television shows or other media reports. Such exposure always spurs interest from customers.

Inside the store, those in search of titles directly related to the attacks will find them displayed under headings such as Current Events or Terrorism. Eventually, someone will come up with a better name, predicted Russell Kierzkowski.

Near the World War II sections and the Gulf War shelves, a new space will be given to a subject that's likely to be of interest for a long time.

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