Recall spurs sales of Bush bio

Books: The discredited `Fortunate Son' sells at auction for up to $50, but dealers say the inflated value isn't likely to last.

October 30, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Think you're fortunate because you've snagged a copy of "Fortunate Son," the recalled George W. Bush biography from St. Martin's Press?

Think again.

Although Internet auctions are asking -- and, in some cases, getting -- prices upward of $50, those who deal in rare books doubt the tome will have any long-term value.

Besides, you could still buy it at Borders at the list price of $25.95 this week, although the Michigan-based chain is expected to comply soon with St. Martin's recall, as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com already have. (Bibelot never even received its shipment.)

"This is almost Beanie Babies in hardback," says Brad T. Seibel, community relations manager at the Borders Books & Music store in Towson. It's only now that the book has been removed from the market, Seibel says, that people want to buy it. Until the recall, sales were sluggish at his store.

So why not capitalize on the demand and keep the stock? Booksellers are not legally obligated to comply with a recall. But it's a courtesy to do so, Seibel says, and booksellers prefer to maintain a good working relationship with one of the largest publishers in the business.

Recalls are not unknown in the publishing business and can happen for any number of reasons -- plagiarism, libel or, in this case, pervasive doubts about the author's credibility.

The Bush biography, one of two to appear this month, was published three months ahead of schedule to capitalize on its claim that the Texas governor had used cocaine in 1972. At one point, "Favorite Son" was in Amazon.com's "Hot 100," an hourly ranking of in-demand books.

But a flurry of damaging media reports about the biography's veracity and its author's reputation forced St. Martin's to issue the recall.

Reporters questioned the reliability of the three anonymous sources in the book's afterword, which dealt with the cocaine allegations. The Dallas Morning News then reported the author, J.H. Hatfield, was an ex-felon who had attempted to hire a hit man to kill a former boss.

Hatfield said it was a case of mistaken identity, only to be further undermined when it was revealed he had padded his resume, claiming a non-existent award for science fiction writing. He has since gone into hiding and is unavailable for comment.

But "Fortunate Son" remains, if not readily available, then find-able. eBay, the popular online auction site, had more than 40 copies listed at various times this past week, with a range of prices from $2.99 to more than $50.

And while you can no longer buy the book from Amazon.com's book department, you can find a copy at Amazon's auction site, where a Crofton seller's reserve price of $30 has already been exceeded. The highest bid yesterday was $35, with five days to go.

So is the book valuable? Not in the long term, says Teresa Johanson, co-owner of Kelmscott Bookshop in Baltimore, which appraises rare books.

"Generally with subjects like that, well-known figures, there's an immediate interest, but it doesn't last," she says. "I do my best to avoid political biographies."

A recall alone is not enough to make a book a hot property. Consider the case of C. David Heymann's biography of Barbara Hutton, "Poor Little Rich Girl, which was recalled in 1984 by Random House.

A California doctor, identified in the book as over-medicating the Woolworth heiress as early as 1943, pointed out he was 14 at the time.

The book was recalled and pulped; Heymann went on to chronicle the lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As for "Poor Little Rich Girl," a check of online used book dealers yesterday found 30-plus copies available, at prices ranging from $2.50 for a book club edition to $40 for an edition with a copy of the recall notice.

In book collecting, scarcity is not necessarily enough, Johanson points out. Serious collectors are interested in literary merit, as well.

Besides, there's no evidence that "Fortunate Son" is particularly scarce. St. Martin's shipped a reported 70,000 copies; Ingram, one of the largest wholesalers in the country, has sold more than 25,000 copies, according to its automated inventory system.

Meanwhile, another publisher has found a way to capitalize on St. Martin's problems. "Get the real story," read an ad in this week's New York Times for "First Son: George W. Bush and the Family Dynasty," the competing Bush biography from Times Books, by Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio.

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