Wartime Bookbuyers Boost Sales

While droves of Americans turned to television and other news media to learn about Operation Iraqi Freedom, the nation's booksellers also saw a similar boost in business.

“The first couple of weeks we definitely saw sales go up with books on the Middle East and on Iraq in particular,” said Kendall Spooner, marketing manager for Borders bookstores in Denver. “Even a week before, people knew war was coming. So people started coming in."

The interest in this conflict has been much greater than it was during Operation Desert Storm 11 years ago, said Charlotte Abbott, book news editor at Publishers Weekly.

"It was over so quickly it didn’t really change our way of life the way Sept. 11 did," she said. "It’s all cut a lot more deeply for people this time, forced people to go out and spend money on books and take the time to read them."

Several memoirs written by soldiers and officers are page-turners that take readers to the heart of action, as veterans from previous operations have put down their gun and picked up a pen to share their experiences — often in grisly detail.

One popular pick has been Jarhead (Scribner; March 2003) by Anthony Swofford, on the New York Times bestseller list for five weeks. The former Marine lays out intimate details of his Desert Storm experience — discussing everything from his latrine habits to his disenchantment with the armed forces.

Big sales for such books don’t surprise Greg Fiechter, manager of Barnes and Noble Union Square in New York City.

“Sales bump up with anything that happens, not like war is any different than a new diet therapy," he said. "Yes, there are more sales. But there are just more books coming out.”

Another up-close-and-personal account of military operations, In the Company of Heroes  (Putnam; May 2003), was written by Michael J. Durant, the Army pilot at the helm of the now famous Black Hawk helicopter when it was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Durant, who was held captive for 11 days before being released, said he was inspired to write his personal tale after watching the movie Black Hawk Down.

“The movie essentially ends with the end of the battle in Mogadishu,” he said in a statement. “And that left it wide open as to what happened to me. I wondered if anyone in the audience was wondering what happened to that guy? And I thought there would never be a better opportunity than now to tell that story.”

Readers are also picking up historical and cultural non-fiction works.

The Crisis of Islam (Modern Library; March 2003), by historian Bernard Lewis, examines the origins of Islam and the growth of its militant branches. The bestseller's popularity comes as no surprise to some.

“There is a certainly a committed readership for serious non-fiction like Lewis writes, which may be expanded when his topics like this are in the news,” Abbott said. “People groping for some kind of take on the issue might pick up his books. He’s considered the preeminent expert.”

Not everyone agreed.

"A lot of people don’t think he [Lewis] knows that much about the Arab world at all,” countered Laura Miller, book editor at Salon.com. She recommended Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel (Belknap Press, April 2002) for a great country-by-country history of political Islam over the last 25 years.

Whatever the title or subject, experts agreed timing can make or break a publication. Jarhead, for example, hit the shelves as troops were being deployed overseas.

“There are a ton of books coming out about Enron right now that are dying on the vine, they are getting no press coverage,” said Miller. “It’s the luck of the draw. Jarhead definitely came out at the right time.”

And readers' desire to learn more should help fuel the trend, she predicted.

“I think it is reassuring that since 9-11 all these books have been selling out. That the response of American public has been ‘I don’t really know what’s going on with this and I want to find out more.’”