Anyone who has struggled through his W-4 form may be wondering why he would want to read another government document, ever.
On the other hand, the “instant book” version of the report of the President’s Special Review Board, better known as the Tower Commission, has been in print less than a week and is selling out in bookstores across the country.
“An across-the-board phenomenon” is how Mary Lilja at the B. Dalton corporate headquarters in Minneapolis described the sales frenzy for “The Tower Commission Report.”
Widespread Interest Seen
“Right from the start, this book sold extremely well throughout the country, and the pace is continuing briskly,” Lilja said. “The interest doesn’t seem to be with any one group of customers. It’s very widespread.”
Agreed Brian Baxter, a buyer for B. Dalton who is widely regarded as a kind of human barometer for the book industry, “I can tell you, it’s the fastest-moving book in the country right now.”
Issued as a co-venture by Bantam Books and Times Books in association with the New York Times, the 550-page, $5.50 paperback had an initial print run of 400,000 when the first bound copy came off the press at 9:29 a.m. last Sunday--47 hours and 29 minutes after the report had been officially released by the Tower Commission in Washington. By Monday, a second printing had been ordered, bringing the number of copies in print to 600,000. Late Wednesday afternoon, in anticipation of a potential sales surge after the President’s remarks to the nation Wednesday evening about the contents of the report on the Iran- contra arms scandal, a third printing order raised the figure to 700,000.
In an era in which high shipping and production costs have forced publishers to become increasingly selective about instant books, the figures were high. When Bantam and Times Books executives caucused initially about the project, Bantam vice president Stuart Applebaum reported, “We were talking about a first print run of maybe 150,000 copies.”
But soon the sales forces began calling booksellers and distributors. “We saw that the number was far too short because they were ordering so aggressively,” Applebaum said.
For Times Books vice president and editorial director Jonathan B. Segal, the book’s lightning sales pace came as scant surprise. It was former New York Times journalist Segal, after all, who first proposed publishing the report whose contents blast the presidential management style and are sharply critical of the Reagan Administration’s conduct of national security matters.
Already convinced that the findings of the Tower panel would prove a “major, major story,” Segal said he came home late one night several weeks ago and idly picked up what he called “a long, long piece” on the Iran- contra affair in the New Yorker magazine. “I couldn’t put the damned thing down,” Segal said. “I said to myself, you know, we are finally getting to the core: Why were these low-level officials on the National Security Council making policies for America?”
The next morning, Segal attended an editorial meeting at Random House, Times Books’ parent corporation, and suggested publishing the commission’s findings.
Howard Kaminsky (Random House chief executive officer and publisher of the Random House trade division) “looked at me,” Segal remembered, “and said, ‘Do it.’ ”
From then on, Segal embarked on a two-week flurry that culminated at 4 p.m. last Sunday when “the doorman said there was a package downstairs for me--and there was the book.” In the meantime, Segal had persuaded the New York Times to lend its name to the project, and had drafted that paper’s chief Washington correspondent, R. W. Apple Jr., to write the introduction. Segal was poised in the paper’s newsroom on Feb. 26 as the front-page stories on the report were coming in. Through an arrangement with the editors, he decided to add “Muskie’s summary” of the panel’s findings as well. “I thought that was a good piece of information,” Segal said, “and we were able to get it set into type right before the deadline.”
The Morning After
The co-venture with Bantam meant the book was actually set into type the morning after its release by a firm in Hagerstown, Md., that serves as the typesetter for Doubleday, a sister company to Bantam. By 11 p.m. on Feb. 26, a Bantam printer in Chicago began rolling the presses.
The decision to co-publish with Bantam came in part because that mass-market house has had huge successes with instant titles in the past. Still, Bantam vice president Applebaum said the “unusually high expenses, particularly typesetting and printing that is often done overtime or on weekends,” have made caution a watchword in “super-accelerated” publishing efforts. Because “speed is of the essence here,” Applebaum said first copies of such books are shipped by air, adding still more to the cost of production.
But if the huge interest in the book translates into actual sales, “The Tower Commission Report” may in fact prove a publishing windfall. Government documents lie in the public domain, so no royalty payments are involved.
Besides, the book comes at a time when the events of the Iran- contra scandal have produced a veritable media saturation on the subject. Public interest, book industry specialists predict, will be high.
“The people who are interested in reading it are the people, " said Brian Baxter at B. Dalton’s main office in Minneapolis. “This publishing venture made it possible for the American people to read the document at the same time that the President of the United States is reading it.
‘Complete News Story’
“They took the story that’s in Time magazine, the New York Times, CBS Nightly News and they gave us the complete news story, rather than the capsulized story, at the same time it was happening,” Baxter said.
While B. Dalton is studying its consumers to see if there is a profile purchaser of this book, Baxter said sales of “The Tower Commission Report” would probably ignore most major demographic lines. “Some people will want to read it to prove to themselves that the President’s OK,” Baxter said, “and others will read it to confirm that he isn’t.”
In New York, Jonathan Segal concurred. “I can tell you what I’ve heard from friends,” Segal said. "(A), we have for the first time a look inside the policy-making mechanisms of the U.S. government; and (B), we have a view of Ronald Reagan that we always thought we’d get, but weren’t able to.”
Because of their event-oriented nature, instant books often have a short shelf life, surging to huge sales and then vanishing into obscurity.
“I don’t think two or three weeks from now, people will be jumping up and down about this book,” Segal said. “I think they’ll be more responsive to their Easter dinners.”
“It could evaporate at any moment,” Bantam’s Applebaum echoed. “Who knows? At the moment, it’s flying high.”
As Dalton’s Baxter observed, that fact is all the more noteworthy when taken in the context of a paperback best-seller market that currently includes Robert Ludlum’s newest thriller and the recently televised “I’ll Take Manhattan” by Judith Krantz.
It helps, Baxter said, that the report of the Tower panel is “remarkably readable. I don’t know if the Tower Commission set out to talk to the largest possible audience, but when they sat down and wrote their report, they made it very accessible to a large audience.”
For Segal, the appearance of a book produced so swiftly was a special satisfaction. After such a hectic pace, he greeted his doorman’s call with a huge smile.
“And then,” he said, “I sat down and looked at all the typos.”