How Many O.J. Books Can We Take? : Publishing: Some of the biggest names in the Simpson case are expected to write exposes. But many observers wonder if the market is saturated.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon after learning that O.J. Simpson had written a book from his jail cell, the publishing world was abuzz. Yet the gossip had less to do with the author than the house that paid $1 million for "I Want to Tell You."

"People said: 'Little, Brown! Can you believe it?' " recalls Jaqueline Deval, marketing director for William Morrow. "They were sneering at this highbrow company. Then they saw the sales figures and got very envious."

Not to mention competitive. Some 35 O.J. books have surfaced since the case broke in 1994, and Little, Brown's actions last January don't seem so startling now. Indeed, the controversy greatly boosted sales, proving one of publishing's golden rules: If the market fits, you take the hits.

Now, as the dust settles from last week's verdict, the book biz is readying a flood of new O.J. titles. This time, some of the biggest names involved in the trial are expected to weigh in, and their agents will be seeking seven-figure book deals. Yet experts wonder if the market is saturated, and when it comes to literary standards, few are holding their breath.

"Some of my colleagues have shown some bad taste and poor judgment in pushing a lot of these O.J. books," says literary agent Jane Dystel. "But that occurs with everything we do. It's very much the nature of our business."

In a surprising twist, Little, Brown turned down a proposal for Simpson's next book and announced last week that it will produce no more O.J.-related titles. Still, the story of how it came to acquire the book, co-authored by Lawrence Schiller, says much about the publishing industry's prevailing ethics and its economic stake in America's favorite media orgy.

Some observers believe the book world has been permanently tarnished, noting that several Simpson titles actually disrupted the trial. Yet others suggest publishing has remained largely unchanged. Instant books and lurid exposes are nothing new, they say, and the unprecedented Simpson case merely reinforced the industry's role as a medium that reacts to--and profits from--events.

"It was only a difference of degree," says Steven Schragis, president of Carol Publishing, a small independent house. "Most news stories last about two weeks, but when a story hangs around for 16 months, you can bet the book business will jump in."

In the next few weeks, publishers are expected to announce a flurry of new titles, including books by Simpson, members of the jury, attorneys on both sides of the case, police officials, TV pundits, family members and assorted hangers-on. The Los Angeles Times will produce a paperback account of the trial, as will other media organizations.

Early reports have agents for attorney Robert Shapiro shopping a $1.5-million book proposal. Simpson himself is said to be seeking a blockbuster $4 million to $5 million advance, although there is speculation that his rumored pay-per-view TV appearance could diminish the money he might receive for a book. Marcia Clark has signed up with the William Morris agency, and a representative suggested a book by her is definitely in the works. Several publishers have made overtures to Judge Lance Ito, but he has indicated a reluctance to write anything until all legal matters pertaining to Simpson--including civil actions--are resolved, according to a knowledgeable industry source.

"The asking rate for these books has escalated," Schragis adds. "And in some ways you can say that Little, Brown made out like bandits. They got O.J. Simpson for $1 million, which is comparably cheap. It was good business."

Originally based in Boston, far from the commercial frenzy of New York, Little, Brown has long been regarded as one of America's more august publishing houses. Over the years, it has featured such authors as Norman Mailer, Frances Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Lillian Hellman, and it seemed an unlikely choice for the firm that would give Simpson a big cash advance.

But mega-corporate ownership has dramatically transformed publishing, and the formerly independent Little, Brown--which is now just one small part of the Time Warner empire--is under pressure to generate bigger profits like any other house.

Charles Hayward, CEO and president, says Little, Brown simply saw a good commercial opportunity and seized it. Simpson had a right to tell his story as the trial was getting under way, the executive notes, and the book obviously found a rich market, selling 500,000 copies. Hayward pointedly adds that he does not agree with every viewpoint that his company publishes--nor do his counterparts at other houses.

As publishing becomes more entertainment-oriented, however, that argument is less persuasive with some observers. Where, they ask, do you draw the line?

"In the late 20th Century, there are no depths to which a publisher will not stoop to keep afloat," says Steve Wasserman, editorial director for Times Books, a division of Random House Inc. "We've certainly seen that with the O.J. Simpson case. . . . Very few publishers are coming out of this smelling like roses. The rush to profit from this tragedy has covered no one with glory."

For his part, Wasserman says he has turned down every single O.J. proposal that has come his way. But other Random House divisions have taken the bait: They've signed up three nonfiction books on the trial, and one division, Villard Books, published "O.J.'s Legal Pad," a satire that sold 350,000 copies.

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Buoyed by such figures, publishers are readying the next avalanche of O.J. books. But literary agents on both coasts are leery of getting snowed.

Prominent agent Amanda (Binky) Urban complains that some authors attach prominent names to their book proposals without consulting the subjects first. Then, if they get a nibble, they try to pressure the celebrity with a done deal. The practice is nothing new, she says, but it has been widely abused in the Simpson case.

In one such proposal, a would-be Simpson author indicated that he had purchased the Fuhrman tapes and that his book would be a scrapbook of the trial, with the tapes as a splashy centerpiece. What raised Urban's suspicions was the author's claim that a respected New York Times reporter would be co-writing the book. "You don't know what to believe," she says. "You have to be careful."

If the proposals raining down on publishers are any indication, the next wave will be a mixture of high-end analyses that won't appear for months and a slew of instant titles capitalizing on their author's fleeting celebrity.

At least four books by serious trial observers are in the works, including titles by Jeffrey Toobin for Random House, Joe McGinniss and Dominick Dunne for Crown Books, and Joe Bosco for William Morrow. Meanwhile, publishers are busy sorting through a mass of other proposals, looking for the occasional glint of gold.

"I suppose we'll see book proposals by everybody from the limo driver [Allan Park] to his brother-in-law," Schragis says. "Like a lot of other publishers, I've rejected quite a few O.J. proposals in recent months."

His favorite rejection, Schragis says, was for an apparently serious book linking Simpson, Lt. Mark Fuhrman, the JFK assassination and the "faked" moon landing in one grand conspiracy. Other no-goes have been for "Truly Tasteless O.J. Jokes" and the sequel, "More Truly Tasteless O.J. Jokes."

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Despite these rejections, Carol Publishing jumped into the fray early with "Juice," one of the first instant biographies of the former defendant. "We had to move fast," Schragis says. "O.J. got out of the Bronco, blinked at the cameras and suddenly you had three books. Ours sold 225,000 copies."

Not bad for a $4.99 paperback that didn't require a multimillion-dollar advance and could be produced within a matter of weeks. It's a formula that many publishers hope to duplicate, yet some experts suggest that the flood of new O.J. books could be a fundamental misreading of the public mood.

"The question you have to ask is, when does the market get saturated?" says Dystel, who represents Tracy Hampton, a dismissed Simpson juror. "This has been in our faces every single minute for the last year and a half . . . and I think there's a real chance the appetite for these books will dry up."

Even if new O.J. books sell, she continues, the high prices that firms pay for them could cancel out any major profits. For example, Simpson's inevitable book is likely to top bestseller lists for weeks. Yet if his new publisher delivers a $5-million advance, simply breaking even could be a chore.

It was this reality--and not the fear of more highbrow criticism--that caused Little, Brown to back out of the next O.J. sweepstakes, Hayward says.

"There was a fair amount of hypocrisy about our book," he notes. "Like everybody else in the business, we saw a wide open market, and we tapped it. I don't know if you can still do that, but it won't stop others from trying."

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