9/11 Fixation Easing

A jet airliner is seen just before it crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York, as the north tower burns in the background, in this file photograph from Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. AP/Carmen Taylor

Manuscripts arrive each week in publishing houses: crime thrillers and literary debuts, celebrity biographies and works of history.

But one subject isn't turning up much anymore: Sept. 11.

"There were an enormous number of proposals in the fall and winter, but we haven't seen that level of submissions for a couple of months," says Bob Miller, president of Hyperion Books, which just published "Firehouse," David Halberstam's account of one firehouse devastated by the attacks.

"There are still some coming through, but it's definitely less than it was at the beginning year," says Carolyn Reidy, president of the adult publishing division at Simon & Schuster, which this fall will release "What We Saw," an audiovisual record of Sept. 11.

"I think there is a feeling now that to find a story that is unique and adds to what we have seen is more difficult," Reidy says.

The drop in submissions reflects an apparent overall decline of interest by the book world. Even though dozens of new works are expected to mark the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, publishers worry that readers' interest has peaked.

However, books about Sept. 11 are still on best-seller lists but not as often as last fall. Only one such title appeared on last Sunday's nonfiction list of The New York Times: "Last Man Down," a memoir by fire battalion commander Richard Picciotto. The top three books were Richard Blow's "American Son," by a former associate of John F. Kennedy Jr., and memoirs by Rosie O'Donnell and Michael J. Fox.

"I really think people have retreated to their televisions or their VCRs," says Jonathan Segal, a vice president and senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf. "Everybody said Sept. 11 would change everything, but I don't see a quantum shift."

Some Sept. 11 books are expected to do well this fall, including "What We Saw" and "On Top of the World," the story of Cantor Fitzgerald and its struggle following the deaths of more than 600 of the firm's employees.

However, others might not. Publishers say they've received complaints from booksellers that too many such releases are coming out.

One leading retailer, Michael Powell of Powell's Books, says he has seen "very little" interest lately in Sept. 11 books. He thinks readers are uncomfortable with the subject matter.

"People like reading about natural tragedies, like "The Perfect Storm," but they don't have as big a taste for things that are man-made," says Powell, whose store is based in Portland, Ore. "It's too scary and depressing, and cuts too close to the bone."

After this fall, the number of new books about the attacks will decline significantly. But just as books about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy continue to be released, publishers will not drop Sept. 11 altogether.

Works of emotional appeal, such as "Last Man Down," will likely give way to more analytical books. Publishers believe writers will refer to Sept. 11 in the future, but not use it as the primary subject; studies of Islam and the Middle East will continue to be written, and broader histories and investigative studies will come out.

"The proposals we've been seeing have become broader in their focus, so Sept. 11 is placed within a larger context," says Geoffrey Shandler, executive editor of Little, Brown and Company.

"Writers and thinkers will be looking at events over a period of decades rather than a period of minutes. But that's the nature of books that are driven by the news. The best ones may well be yet to come."


By Hillel Italie
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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