War: A time for tomes?

Woodward, Swofford books sell despite slow biz

HOLLYWOOD — Book sales, which have flatlined for months, took another hit with the onset of the war. Barnes & Noble and Borders, warning of first-quarter losses, have reported a decline in bookstore traffic. Even sales of escapist fiction by traditional bestsellers like John Grisham and Michael Crichton are down.

If saturation TV coverage is partially to blame for falling book sales, it’s also stirred new interest in serious books about the conflict, such as Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War” and Anthony Swofford’s “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” which continue to ride high on bestseller lists.

But those books were written and scheduled long before the march on Baghdad.

Publishing fallout from the Iraq conflict will be limited, in the short term, to instant books like “Why Are We at War,” a polemic by Norman Mailer just issued by Random House.

Later this spring, the Free Press expects to release “The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld,” a collection of “jazzy, impromptu riffs” from intelligence briefings collected by reporter and humorist Hart Sealy and first published on Slate.com.

Simon & Schuster is collaborating with CBS on a book and DVD package it will crash-publish, in the fashion of their 9/11 bestseller, “What We Saw.”

Bookstores are expecting the inevitable authorized and unauthorized books about the kidnapping and rescue of soldier Jessica Lynch.

But until the endgame in Iraq is played out, Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal says, it will be hard to gauge the market.

“Good publishers are always opportunistic,” Rosenthal says. “This is not the best week to be publishing a book about the Hungarian uprising or the Bay of Pigs,” he says. But he notes S&S has several of the Democratic presidential candidates under contract.

Gulf War heroes “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell waited until 1992 and 1995, respectively, to publish their memoirs.

Most enduring books on wartime experience take years to gel.

ICM’s Ron Bernstein, who is shopping “Jarhead” in Hollywood, says, “The amount of literature that came out of the first Gulf War fits comfortably on the head of the pin.

“It reminds you of the shelf life of public events,” he adds. It’s surprisingly short.”

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