Publishers and movie producers shy away from Thomas hearings

October 16, 1991|By Elizabeth Sanger | Elizabeth Sanger,Newsday

When a news event captures the nation's attention, book publishers and Hollywood producers usually are among the first to try to cash in, as they did with the Gulf war and Soviet coup. But 10 days into the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy, agents and publishers are sitting on the sidelines.

Friday, as Hill detailed her accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Thomas, Bantam Books considered producing a quickie book of the transcripts -- as it had with the Tower Commission report and Pentagon Papers -- but passed, in part because it had "doubts about the durability of interest," said Bantam spokesman Stuart Applebaum. Indeed, many publishers said they believe the enormous amount of media coverage may already be enough.

Marvin Brown, president of Penguin USA, said his company, too, discussed possible books Tuesday, but had not been spurred to action. He said that because it isn't clear whether Thomas or Hill is telling the truth, "it would almost be like a book without an end."

That isn't to say there will not be new titles stemming from the controversy. Some publishers say it is too early for authors to push projects on the sensational confrontation, which culminated last night with the Senate's confirmation of Thomas.

Instead, many publishers expect a host of books on sexual harassment in the workplace and on women's rights, using the unprecedented hearings as a backdrop.

Audrey Wolf, a Washington literary agent, said that next week she plans to send out a proposal with the working title "Sex and the Law," which deals with sexual harassment and other women's issues, a sort of how-to on "how women can protect themselves from day one." It was submitted to her by feminist lawyer Cecile Weich and free-lancer Janet Staihar about two weeks ago, before Anita Hill became a household name. Although Wolf said she was interested in it then, "there's clearly a much bigger market now."

As of yesterday, Ruth Berry, a vice president with Devillier Communications, the public relations firm representing Hill, said it had received no inquiries from publishers asking whether Hill would put her story on paper.

Steven Schragis, publisher of the Carol Publishing Group, said he would be surprised if Hill pens her memoirs, "and if she does, a bit of her credibility will be gone, and people without credibility have trouble selling books." Nonetheless, he said he would be interested in publishing her story.

Under the theory that truth is a better plot than fiction, film producers also are giving the testimony further scrutiny.

Quentin Schaffer, a spokesman for Home Box Office, said the subject is of interest, but HBO is not sure this case would work well on the screen.

"It would be very difficult to re-enact because there are two totally contradictory accounts."

He said HBO is looking for another sexual harassment case to make into a made-for-TV movie. "I'm sure that a lot of people are dusting off old scripts on sexual harassment right now." And Don Ohlmeyer, executive producer of "The Heroes of Operation Desert Storm," which was televised earlier this year on ABC, said, "I'm not sure you can do anything in a movie more dramatic than what the people already got in the hearings."

Some publishing houses are resurrecting old titles, hoping for a new lease on life. And in a business where timing can be everything, others are touting new books they hope will ride the coattails of America's fascination with the professor and the judge.

The Crown Publishing Group has just released "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," which it bought four years ago. Author Susan Faludi argues through examples in politics, the media, fashion and other areas that women do not receive equal treatment. The book would have received attention anyway, but the hearings "kind of crystalized it all," said Betty A. Prashker, Crown's editor in chief.

Yale University Press today is starting another printing of its 1979 book "Sexual Harassment of Working Women" by Catharine MacKinnon, a prominent feminist legal theorist, which the publisher calls "the definitive book on the subject." It has sold only 17,000 copies, but recently "we've had bookstores and wholesalers calling us for the book," said Adena Siegel, the publisher's sales manager.

Fawcett is rushing out the paperback version of "Sex in the Forbidden Zone" by Peter Rutter, which examines why some men in power betray women.

The B. Dalton bookstores will feature books in this genre prominently, rather than burying them in the sociology sections, where they have been in the past, said Bob Wietrak, director of merchandising for the chain.

Says Ohlmeyer: "Whether or not Thomas is confirmed, the issue of sexual harassment will be in the forefront for a long time."

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