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Everybody wants Sarah

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Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009
 

When Sarah Palin's memoir hits store shelves next month, it will be at the crux of forces and trends, both short- and long-term, shaping the future of the business of books.

Originally slated for next spring, "Going Rogue: An American Life" will be out Nov. 17 in a first printing of 1.5 million hardcover copies. After publisher HarperCollins announced the schedule change, advance orders quickly put the book among top sellers on the Web sites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Larger issues than holiday-season sales loom, however, and "Going Rogue" is a bellwether for what the rising popularity of books in electronic form and the devices used to read them means for an industry in which online discounters increasingly are eating traditional book retailers' lunches.

***

HarperCollins is withholding the "Going Rogue" e-book until Dec. 26. A spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal that the delay gives retailers "the strongest possible incentive to promote the hardcover edition in stores during the holidays."

The hardcover lists at $28.99. The original advance-order price at Amazon -- where, The Journal notes, new e-book best-sellers usually go for $9.99 -- was $15.65. So HarperCollins obviously figured it could maximize profit and help traditional retailers by delaying the e-book.

But then Wal-Mart ignited a price war by taking advance orders for the hardcover online for $10, and several more moves on both sides cut the hardcover's advance-order price to $9 at Amazon, $8.99 at walmart.com -- both less than Amazon's usual price for such an e-book.

Then Target got in on the act, deciding to offer the "Going Rogue" hardcover online for $8.99, which prompted Wal-Mart to cut its online price by a penny, to $8.98 -- and that was just as of Tuesday morning.

So will delaying e-book versions of hardcovers -- especially the many that don't generate the buzz that only a few, such as "Going Rogue," do -- make sense as e-books' market share rises and the price gap between e-book and hardcover versions of most titles narrows or disappears?

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The book industry needs to answer such questions quickly. As Time magazine noted in an Oct. 11 story, the emerging e-book and "e-reader" market, led by Amazon and its Kindle (through which the Trib is available), soon will be crowded with far more competitors than just Sony and other existing rivals.

Stats from the Time story suggest it's a market approaching critical mass. The Association of American Publishers says revenue from e-book downloads is up 149 percent this year. Forrester Research expects 3 million e-readers to be sold by Dec. 31, including almost 1 million this holiday season, and projects sales doubling to 6 million in 2010.

At least 17 e-readers are available or in development worldwide from the likes of Asustek, Samsung, LG Electronics, Fujitsu and Barnes & Noble -- which just introduced its "Nook" e-reader, with a color touch screen. Wall Street Journal owner News Corp. wants to use the same "electronic ink" as the Kindle. And Apple -- whose iPhone can function as an e-reader -- and Microsoft are believed to be readying "tablet" computers with e-reader, video-display and full Web browsing functionality, according to Time.

"Going Rogue" already is a surefire winner. But how the delayed e-book fares, how its sales affect the hardcover's sales, and how the "Going Rogue" hardcover price war affects those figures -- and HarperCollins' bottom line -- will be closely watched by an industry eager for clues about this emerging market's direction.

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When the decision was made to delay the "Going Rogue" e-book, HarperCollins seemingly viewed it as likely to "cannibalize" the hardcover's sales, suggesting it thought e-books -- despite their savings on paper, ink, printing, binding and shipping -- not to be the better business proposition overall.

If HarperCollins' "Going Rogue" hardcover profit expectations aren't fulfilled due to online hardcover sales at less than the e-book's price, publishers will need to rethink the wisdom of delaying e-book versions to maximize hardcover revenue -- especially if the "Going Rogue" e-book still sells well.

There are other thorny matters for the book industry to deal with, too, lest it look as commercially inept and technologically backward as the music industry. The growth potential of additional e-book formats and e-readers could be offset if those new offerings just create additional, technologically incompatible "walled gardens" that frustrate and confuse consumers.

Like any new market arising from new technology, e-books and e-readers will undergo a shakeout period. And as always, basic economics, marketing savvy, product quality and consumers' experiences will determine the ultimate winners.

If sales of the "Going Rogue" e-book and hardcover send the book business a strong enough, clear enough message about formats, price points and growth opportunities, Sarah Palin might someday be known as much for the book that marked a major technological and commercial "tipping point" -- for readers, authors, publishers, retailers and gadget-makers -- as she is for politics.

REVIEW: His buddy Bubba

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)

It's hard to know what to make of this book because it's hard to classify.

Author Taylor Branch is a historian and former journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for one volume of three he wrote about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. long after working closely with Bill and Hillary Clinton on the 1972 McGovern campaign in Texas. After that, Branch lost touch with them for two decades -- until Bill's 1992 election to the presidency.

Clinton then asked Branch to serve as facilitator/oral historian of a confidential diary. Clinton's verbal musings would be tape-recorded in 79 sessions during Clinton's White House years.

Yet despite this book's title, there's virtually nothing in it taken directly from those tapes -- Clinton always retained them, used them in writing his own memoir (2004's "My Life") and someday might make transcripts available.

Instead, Branch bases his book on tapes of his own recollections of those sessions, recorded on the way back to his Baltimore home after each one.

It's to Branch's credit that he explicitly acknowledges often being unable to maintain detached objectivity during his sessions with Clinton and serving at times as a White House speech doctor and adviser. But that only further muddles this book's nature. It's not "primary source" material, not a scholarly work, but a secondhand -- albeit privileged -- account by a lesser-known "FOB" ("Friend of Bill").

The one thing "The Clinton Tapes" does convey notably well is the sheer number and range of issues, personalities and demands that a president must deal with. But Branch's flat, "this, then that, then something else" prose, lack of genuine revelations and coverage of familiar ground make his book less than a compelling read -- unless you're a reader who absolutely just can't get enough of the 42nd president and his administration.

SHELF LIFE: Bye-week reading: Business of football

Like most Pittsburghers, most local readers -- even those who seriously love serious books -- probably will spend this afternoon watching the Steelers' 1 p.m. game against the Minnesota Vikings.

But what will they do next Sunday• The Steelers won't be playing at all on Nov. 1 or, for that matter, in the Nov. 2 Monday-night game -- because they'll be off for their bye week.

Nevertheless, take heart, serious fans of both books and the Steelers. Combine your passions to tide you over until the Black and Gold's Nov. 9 Monday-night game against the Denver Broncos by checking out the following books about the business of football, compiled by manager Karen Rossi and her staff at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown & Business branch.

Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport

by Michael Oriard (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

First Down and a Billion: The Funny Business of Pro Football

by Gene Klein and David Fisher (Morrow, 1987)

Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps: How the NFL Became the Most Successful Sports League in History

by Mark Yost (Kaplan Business, 2006)

Sports, Inc.: 100 Years of Sports Business

by Phil Schaaf (Prometheus Books, 2004)

Next Question: An NFL Super Agent's Proven Game Plan for Business Success

by Drew and Jason Rosenhaus (Berkley, 2008)

Game Plans for Success: Winning Strategies for Business and Life from Ten Top NFL Head Coaches

edited by Ray Didinger (Little, Brown, 1995)

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership

by Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh (Portfolio, 2009)

The Winning Spirit: 16 Timeless Principles that Drive Performance Excellence

by Joe Montana (Random House, 2005)

NEW PAGES TO TURN

A Cracking of the Heart

by David Horowitz (Regnery)

Due out Monday, this book will surprise readers familiar with its author only as a 1960s radical who became a fiery conservative critic of the left. In "A Cracking of the Heart," David Horowitz comes to terms with the untimely death at age 44 of his "very liberal daughter" Sarah. Despite being born with a genetic condition that left her deaf and unable to walk without enormous pain, she tutored her autistic niece, lived in a mud hut while working with an African tribe and crusaded for people unjustly imprisoned. Acknowledging his failings as a father, he finds solace in universal truths and her lasting influence on him: "(S)he has left me this gift: When I see a homeless person destitute on the street, I think of Sarah, and my heart opens. If there is a criminal shut behind bars, I force myself to remember her compassion, and a sadness shades my anger. ... Whenever I think of Sarah, tears well in my eyes, and my chest fills to the brim; and then I am overwhelmed by the terrible sorrow of our human lot and how finally, in this, we are one."

Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That's Conspiring to Islamize America

by P. David Gaubatz and Paul Sperry (WND Books)

P. David Gaubatz is a counterterrorism specialist and former federal agent trained by the U.S. State Department as an Arabic linguist. Paul Sperry, a media fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who previously wrote the book "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington," is a former Washington bureau chief for Investor's Business Daily. Yet they don't share authorial credit for "Muslim Mafia" with their new book's indispensable contributor: Gaubatz's son Chris, who gathered more than 12,000 pages of confidential documents and hundreds of hours of video while posing as an intern with the Washington-based nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Drawing on that trove of information, the authors paint CAIR as what the publisher calls a "terror-supporting front group for the dangerous, mob-like Muslim Brotherhood." Columnist Daniel Pipes, director of Philadelphia's Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, contends CAIR might not survive its portrayal in "Muslim Mafia" as an organization whose reality is far different from the image it tries to project. If nothing else, "Muslim Mafia" is sure to heighten the debate over the influence and intentions of Islamists in America and their foreign supporters.

The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy

by Peter H. Wilson (Harvard University Press)

Written by a leading British expert on German history, this Oct. 1 release is being widely hailed as the definitive English-language account of a conflict that cost the lives of 20 percent of the Holy Roman Empire's subjects between 1618 and 1648 and transformed Europe by establishing it as a more politically stable continent ruled by sovereign secular states rather than empires rooted in religion. The praise that "The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy" is drawing is especially noteworthy because author Peter H. Wilson presents what The Wall Street Journal calls "a bracingly novel interpretation. ... It turns out that the quintessential war of religion was scarcely one at all." The conflict did originate in a Protestant revolt against Catholic rulers within the Holy Roman Empire, but Wilson argues that religion was just one factor, along with political, social and dynastic forces. Though the Thirty Years War may seem remote now, the Europe of today can in many ways be traced to the Europe sculpted by this horrifically savage, atrocity-filled conflict. Readers who value historical knowledge's capacity to help avoid repetition of mistakes will find much to ponder in this book's voluminous 1,040 pages.

A Page of Books, written and compiled by Alan Wallace, appears on the last Sunday of each month.

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