'Unfit for Command': a hot potato for booksellers

Last month, when "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry" - a book questioning the details of Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam - failed to materialize on bookstore shelves, the conspiracy theories began to fly.

Frustrated customers bombarded bookstores with phone calls, cries of liberal bias, and accusations of censorship. They pointed to prominent displays of Bill Clinton's memoirs, "My Life," and Maureen Dowd's "Bushworld" as blatant examples of how left-leaning the industry has become. Postings such as this one appeared on websites like www.freerepublic.com:

"They are not sold out.... This is how they keep the books away from the public. People need to wake up about this tactic. Are they ever 'sold out' of anti-Bush books?"

And indeed, there was evidence of partisan foul play - but it appeared to be coming from the other end of the political spectrum. In a few instances, booksellers received requests for multiple copies of "Unfit for Command," but found disconnected numbers when they called back to confirm.

That's when countertheories started to swirl, suggesting that savvy and defiant readers were placing bogus bulk orders at strategic bookstores to boost the book's ranking on The New York Times bestseller list.

"Unfit for Command" did land the No. 1 spot on the Times's nonfiction list last Sunday, but without the telltale marker - a tiny dagger - that the paper uses to identify books whose numbers it suspects have been padded.

In part, the flap is one more landmark in a frenzied presidential campaign. But it's also an indication of just how polarized and impassioned the political landscape has become, and the degree to which the publishing world is caught in the middle of the fight.

"I think it is a reflection of a very charged climate.... I can't remember another time when books were so much a part of it," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

What's unusual this time, he says, is that the new tomes are mainstream "counter books" - part of a literary brawl taking place at the cash register. "There certainly have been right-wing books going back to 1964 that sold a lot of copies," says Professor Gitlin. "What's unusual now is that you have a slugfest. The publishing industry has turned into 'Crossfire.' "

It's common for party loyalists to criticize a store's selection, says Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. But bookstore owners say they've never seen vitriol like that inspired by "Unfit for Command."

Written by John E. O'Neill, the naval officer who took over Kerry's swift boat when Kerry left Vietnam, and Jerome R. Corsi, the book was to be released in September. But publisher Regnery decided to capitalize on ads placed by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and moved the date to mid-August. Demand far outpaced the initial print run of 85,000. So even as the book's popularity soared, hordes of customers couldn't purchase it; Amazon.com reported delays of weeks.

Copies were so elusive that after discussing the situation with a friend over lunch, one Portland bookbuyer walked away wondering whether the book actually existed.

The behemoth bookstore chain Barnes and Noble reported thousands of complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. There were so many, in fact, that CEO Steve Riggio released a statement explaining that "Regnery has not been able to keep up with customer demand for this title."

He added: "We do not publish and do not edit these books. We let our customers decide what to buy and read."

The accusation of censorship, particularly when directed at the larger chain stores, strikes some as absurd in an industry whose most basic goal is to sell books. One posting on a website for Borders bookstore's union members reads: "We bow to the almighty dollar like any good corporation."

Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., hasn't received phony orders, but it's fielded plenty of furious calls.

Gerry Donaghy, a buyer for the store, attributes it to a backlash by conservative customers who feel marginalized in a liberal city. But there's a "lunatic fringe" on both sides, he says, and he wouldn't be surprised if leftist customers were trying to keep "Unfit for Command" off shelves.

Independent store owners point out that, while they decide which among the 150,000 titles published annually they will stock, most will special-order anything.

Gayle Shanks, an owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., says she didn't plan to carry a book that "diminishes the contribution a soldier made to his country." But never before has she been confronted with such "angry, in-your-face" calls, and she doesn't believe they are from local customers. "The election being so close and the two candidates blasting each other the way they are, I think people are on edge," she says.

In Hamilton, Mont., a coowner of Chapter One Book Store has made his own comment on the readers' divide. Between his display of left- and right-wing books, he's piled a heap of sticks and stones.

"People definitely got that," says Russ Lawrence. "It raised some chuckles and sold some books."

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