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The Top Books of 2004


It was a year dominated by partisan political authors. Gerry Donaghy says, "It was your Al Frankens, your Michael Moores. The new Ann Coulter book has been selling really well. Our best seller list has been almost completely monopolized by non-fiction."

Gerry Donaghy is the book purchasing supervisor for Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon. He says every election year brings its share of books praising and attacking the candidates. But this year was noteworthy for the way conservative authors moved into the mainstream.

"A lot of the established houses that are accused of being bastions of left wing New York intellectual elitism started creating imprints to publish books that cater to the conservative readership," says Mr. Donaghy.

Republicans appear to have gotten an especially big boost from "Unfit for Command," written by John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi. The book was part of a campaign launched by combat veterans who, like John Kerry,manned Navy Swift Boats during the Vietnam War. Their attack on Mr. Kerry's war record turned the book into a huge and controversial best seller that may have influenced the outcome of the Presidential race. Margie Ross heads Regnery, the book's publisher.

Ms. Ross says, "The New York Times when they reviewed the book said, 'If John Kerry loses the election, this book will be one of the chief reasons why.'"

Kerry supporters could take comfort from best-selling books attacking George Bush everything from the President's foreign policy, in Craig Unger's "House of Bush, House of Saud," to his economic programs, in Paul Krugman's "The Great Unraveling." Former Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was the subject of a book called "The Price of Loyalty," by Ron Suskind, which portrayed the President as disengaged from policy issues. Mr. Suskind says he was astonished by the media sensation his book created, but also hoped for a more long term impact.

"It's such a fractious political environment right now, mostly based on arguments about what we don't know," says Mr. Suskind. "Now that we have this great gift to fact, we can have real discussions about what we know."

But interest in political books was already subsiding by Election Day on November second, says Gerry Donaghy of Powell's bookstore. And by November third, publishers were looking to the future.

Mr. Doaghy says, "As soon as Kerry conceded the race, they were faxing us saying, 'Hey, we've got one on how to survive 4 more years of the Bush presidency.' It's like game 7 of the World series, having two front pages ready to go depending on who wins the game."

If non-fiction garnered much of the attention in publishing this past year, novelist Dan Brown did more than his share to keep fiction sales booming. Gerry Donaghy says that was true even though it's been nearly two years since Mr. Brown published "The Da Vinci Code," which investigates a contemporary murder with the help of clues buried in classic art works.

"People were going back and reading his other books which are readily available in paperback," adds Mr. Donaghy. "There's this whole cottage industry growing up around 'The Da Vinci Code,' interpreting 'The Da Vinci Code.' It's even crossing language barriers. One of the best selling titles we had in Spanish in addition to 'The Da Vinci Code' was a Spanish edition of 'Decrypting the Da Vinci Code.'"

Fans of the "The Da Vinci Code" may also have helped launch the career of two new authors. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason scored one of this year's biggest publishing successes with "The Rule of Four," which revolves around a mysterious 15th century manuscript. Like "The Da Vinci Code," the story is filled with scholarly bits of information about art, religion and medieval history. Ian Caldwell believes the success of both books reflects public interest in stories about the past.

"So much of history in school tends to be facts and dates and memorization," says Mr. Caldwell. "I think there's always been an appetite out there to see the past in an exciting way, which I think history at its heart isnt's always an interesting story."

If journeys back in time were popular in American fiction this past year, so too were stories that took readers far beyond their borders. Gerry Donaghy points to the success of "Snow," a novel in translation by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. The story explores the changing social and religious landscape in modern day Turkey.

Mr. Donaghy says, "A lot of times word of mouth is what really drives the book sales. That was one case where the book got a really good New York Times book review, and suddenly it's flying off the shelves."

Exactly which books will fly off the shelves remains the great question for American publishers. This year it was a mix of the predictable and the unpredictable. Readers were absorbed in the realities of election year politics at home and the changing face of societies elsewhere in the world, with plenty of time out to escape into fictional worlds of intrigue.

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