In World of Nonfiction, It's All in the Timing : Books: What are publishers willing to gamble on this winter and spring? The Kennedys (again), the fall of liberalism, autobiographies by women and even Orange County.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If timing is tricky in politics, it can be perilous in nonfiction publishing. House Speaker Newt Gingrich knows this--and so does the company planning to print 750,000 copies of his next book later this year.

Long after the ethical flap over the congressman's handling of a $4.5-million book advance subsides, HarperCollins could face more challenging questions: Will Americans still want to buy a book by Gingrich 10 months from now? Or will his political allure and marketability have begun to fade?

It's impossible to predict, given the public's shifting moods, and it underscores the dilemma facing publishers who test the waters with thousands of nonfiction titles each year. On the surface, books riding the waves of social trends, popular tastes and celebrity gossip might seem to have a better chance of connecting with fickle readers than fiction. Yet titles that look hot and promising today can turn into a pile of dusty remainders tomorrow.

"I think they (HarperCollins) made a smart bet with the Gingrich book, but who knows that the Republicans won't fall on their face in the first 100 days?" says a New York literary agent who specializes in nonfiction titles. "You can never guess precisely what the market will bear, especially in publishing, where it takes months or years to get a book out, not weeks."

Even instant books--those four-week wonders seeking to capitalize on breaking news--aren't always safe bets. Times Books scored a coup in 1991 with its quickie book on the Persian Gulf War, but the jury is still out on its latest venture, a paperback version of the GOP's "contract with America."

The financial risks are great, yet they don't stop American publishers from flooding the market every year with an increasingly wide range of nonfiction titles. This year will be no different, and a random survey of books slated to appear in the winter and spring shows how dramatically the field has grown.

Once dominated by biographies and social science texts, nonfiction has become a profusion of niche markets. Publishers bank on a steady demand for titles in fields such as Civil War histories, self-help books, parenting, sports and celebrity confessionals.

But even those seemingly safe bets can backfire if the market is glutted. Last year, both Hyperion and Random House rushed can't-miss books on Marlon Brando into stores, only to find that reader interest was less than they had imagined, and that the two high-profile titles essentially canceled each other out.

"In the book business, you rise or fall by an incredibly small margin," says Robert Gottlieb, executive vice president of the William Morris Agency.

"Just think of Oksana Baiul in last year's Winter Olympics. By less than one-tenth of a point, she become a millionaire celebrity instead of going back to an orphanage in the Ukraine. Welcome to the world of publishing."

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It's a crapshoot, as book mavens are fond of pointing out, and publishers dream of those lucky occasions when their nonfiction titles hit the super-stores just in time to fuel or feed off a hot social controversy.

Several authors may hit that bull's-eye this winter, amid growing talk of liberalism's demise and the breakdown of voter confidence in government.

In "Stupid Government Tricks" (Plume), John J. Kohut tells outrageous stories of Washington waste, ranging from a manual for baking the perfect brownie to a study inquiring why Antarctica's penguins are gaining weight. In "The Bill" (Viking), Steven Waldman traces President Clinton's National Service legislation, from sound bite to finished product. The subtitle claims to show "What Is Corrupt, Comic, Cynical and Noble About Washington."

In a more scholarly vein, "The End of Reform" by history Prof. Alan Brinkley (Knopf) charts the historical rise and stagnation of the liberal welfare state created 50 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Enough Is Enough" says Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican and harsh critic of all things liberal, in a forthcoming book for Hyperion.

Good timing may also bless several books on the incendiary topic of race, crime and culture. "It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture" by Wendy Kaminer (Addison-Wesley) takes an ironic look at hot-button issues, ranging from the "abuse defense" popularized by the Menendez brothers to middle-class paranoia over crime. "Crime and the Politics of Hysteria" by David Anderson (Times Books) examines the Willie Horton case and its lasting impact.

Meanwhile, two competing titles, "The Bell Curve Debate" (Times Books) and "The Bell Curve Wars" (Basic Books) update America's current debate over race, genes and intelligence. On a more conciliatory note, African American scholar Cornel West and Jewish essayist Michael Lerner collaborate on "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin," a provocative give-and-take from Putnam.

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While every book is a gamble, some categories are safer than others. Books related to the Kennedys continue to appear, for example, with no end of demand in sight. Indeed, Random House is betting heavily on "Oswald's Tale" by Norman Mailer, an 896-page study of Lee Harvey Oswald that draws on previously secret KGB surveillance materials, including wiretaps of Oswald's apartment in Minsk.

Meanwhile, Norton will issue "The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means and Opportunity" by Dan Moldea, calling it the definitive account. Putnam offers "Seeds of Destruction" by Ralph G. Martin, yet another critique of Joe Kennedy Sr.'s raising of his four sons. In a lighter vein, "Jackie Under My Skin" by Wayne Koestenbaum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) examines our lingering obsession with the deceased First Lady, viewing her ultimately as a pleasure principle and symbol of extravagance.

Anniversaries are usually a good hook in the nonfiction market, and the Allies' 1945 victory in World War II will produce a flood of books. Topping the list is the 1,300-page "Oxford Companion to World War II" (Oxford University Press), with more than 1,700 entries by 140 experts. For nostalgia buffs, Bill Mauldin's "Up Front" cartoons, featuring bedraggled G.I.s Willie and Joe, will be reissued by Norton. Also noteworthy is "Marching Orders" by Bruce Lee (Crown), focusing on the war's bloody conclusion.

This year marks 50 years since the Hiroshima bombing, and Simon & Schuster is promoting "Dark Sun" by Richard Rhodes, a history of the hydrogen bomb. It also marks a half-century since the last German concentration camp was liberated, and "In the Camps" by Erich Hartman (Norton) contains chilling photos of 31 death camps as they exist today. Meanwhile, "The Comfort Women" by George Hicks (Norton) tells the story of more than 100,000 Korean, Chinese, Indonesian and Dutch women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II.

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Is the world more enlightened 50 years later? Controversies over the treatment of women continue to dominate modern America and the publishing marketplace. In 1995, lead titles include "Race, Gender and Power in America" (Oxford University Press), edited by Anita Hill and Emma Coleman Jordan. The book includes Hill's first essay on the Clarence Thomas affair, as well as contributions by Anna Deavere Smith, Judith Resnick of the USC Law Center, Harvard Prof. Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and other legal experts.

Meanwhile, author Kay Mills offers an intriguing view of the subject in "From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women's History in America" (Plume). A related work by Basic Books' author Rhona Mahony says it all in the title: "Kidding Ourselves: Why Women Won't Achieve Equality Until Men Start Really Sharing Parenting and How to Make It Happen."

Speaking of parenting, the field is bursting with new titles this spring. On the lighter side, "It's not fair, Jeremy Spencer's parents let him stay up all night!" by Anthony E. Wolf (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a successor to the author's previous book, "Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?" Mixing humor and sage advice, Wolf helps parents navigate the minefields of raising youngsters. So do Stan and Jan Berenstain in "What Your Parents Never Told You About Being a Mom or Dad" (Crown), as they tackle parenting in the '90s with the help of hilarious line drawings.

On a more serious note, Basic Books will publish "Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem" by David Blankenhorn, a searching look at the decline of fatherhood as an American institution. The company will also issue "Other People's Children" by Julia Wrigley, an examination of the anxieties and doubts that arise when middle-class parents and their children's care givers come from different cultural backgrounds.

A different kind of anxiety fills the pages of "I Speak for This Child: True Stories of a Child Advocate" by Gay Courter (Crown). The author, who is also a novelist, recounts her experiences as a court-appointed advocate for children in Florida's bleak child-welfare system and juvenile courts. In a series of heart-stopping tales, she touches on horrors ranging from foster care abuses and judicial malfeasance to grotesque vignettes of family neglect.

Courter's book also chronicles her own anguished process of discovery, just one more example of how women's autobiographical nonfiction has become a full-blown genre. The field welcomes a new voice this spring with Louise Erdrich's "Bluejays Dance: A Writer's Year With Baby" (HarperCollins). Marking the novelist's first major nonfiction writing, it takes place over 12 months in Erdrich's life, telling the story of her winter pregnancy, early months raising a daughter and gradual resumption of writing.

Similarly, "Drinking the Rain" by Alix Kates Shulman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a memoir of the novelist's decision to leave New York for a life off the Maine coast. Back in the urban caldron, "The Snarling Citizen" by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich (Farrar Straus and Giroux) anthologizes the author's views on everything from menopause chic to biting suggestions that Americans simply flog welfare recipients in public.

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Although they're hard to find in many stores, titles by university presses are more diverse than ever, often filling a literary void that commercial publishers ignore. The University of California Press is a good example, and it plans to issue a series of unusual, California-focused titles this year.

Most timely is "Postsuburban California," a series of essays about the transformation of Orange County since World War II. Editors Rob Kling, Spencer Olin and Mark Poster have woven together historical and social scientific perspectives on the nation's fifth largest county, shortly before its precipitous fall into bankruptcy. The house will also publish "West of the West: Imagining California," a rich diversity of views on the Golden State from more than 40 contributors, including Gore Vidal, M.F.K. Fisher, Tom Wolfe, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Amy Tan, Randy Shilts and others.

Other publishers are also jumping into the California market. "The Los Angeles House: Decoration and Design in America's 20th-Century City" by Tim Street-Porter (Crown) promises a sumptuous look at Los Angeles housing as "America's design laboratory." On a grittier note, "Father Greg and the Homeboys" by journalist Celeste Fremon (Hyperion) tells the story of Father Greg Boyle's work with troubled youths in the barrios of East Los Angeles.

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Fremon has also written a script based on Boyle's life for Columbia Pictures, and it shows how biographies have become powerful players in the nonfiction market. Nowadays, publishers, authors and agents routinely try to broker film or TV deals with Hollywood when they sign up nonfiction books, and the stories of famous or inspiring people are easier to sell than most.

Leading the list of 1995 biographies is "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton" (Simon & Schuster) by Washington Post reporter David Marannis, who earlier won a Pulitzer Prize for his presidential coverage. Meanwhile, Times Books is publishing "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," the first public discussion of the war, its tangled political origins and aftermath by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

If you thought Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would recede from view after Doris Kearns Goodwin's exhaustive "No Ordinary Time" last year, think again. Historian Geoffrey Ward weighs in this April with "Closest Companion" (Houghton Mifflin), probing the little-known affair that FDR had over the last 10 years of his life with Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, a sixth cousin.

Other biographies on tap for spring include "Lost in Hollywood: The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix" by John Glatt (Donald I. Fine), "Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton" by Michael Schumacher (Hyperion), "Noel and Cole: Their Sexuality, Their Genius," a study of Noel Coward and Cole Porter by Joseph Morella and George Mazzei (Carroll & Graf), and "Katharine Hepburn" by Barbara Leaming (Crown), billed as the first major, extensively researched biography of the Hollywood film legend.

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Will any of these nonfiction books succeed? That's like trying to predict Newt Gingrich's popularity in 100 days, or Orange County's fiscal health by the end of 1996. Beyond talent and creativity, much depends on luck.

Less than a year ago, Buck O'Neil was an obscure baseball scout in Kansas City. Today he's a celebrity, due to his role in Ken Burns' recent nine-part TV series on baseball and his knowledge of the Negro Baseball League.

He's got a swagger in his step, a smile on his face . . . and a highly touted autobiography coming out this summer from Simon & Schuster.

Its title? "I Was Right on Time."

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