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At BookExpo, a fractured right and an energized left

NEW YORK -- There were books advocating the public role of Christianity and the soundness of the free market, an attack on the liberal "elite" by Laura Ingraham, and a memoir by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president. The conservative works on display at last weekend's BookExpo America could be seen as a tribute to the diversity of right-wing publishing and the movement in general. But, publishers say, they're really a sign of an industry, and of a political movement, wondering what to do next.

"The conservative market is not unified, there are many fractures," said Marji Ross, president and publisher of Regnery Publishing, which for 60 years has been releasing conservative works, including Ingraham's upcoming "Power to the People."

"It's a reflection of the culture, and a reflection of the Republican Party, which is being torn in different directions," added Steve Ross (no relation to Marji Ross), head of the Crown Publishing Group, which includes the conservative imprint Crown Forum, where authors include Ann Coulter.

Brand-name writers like Coulter, who has a book out in the fall, continue to top bestseller lists. But publishers say they are struggling to find books with broad themes to engage and energize right-wing readers like the anti-Clinton books of the 1990s or Newt Gingrich's 2005 best seller, "Winning the Future."

"The submissions are more narrowly focused, on a single issue," said Marji Ross, who added that sales in 2006 were the softest since the start of the Bush administration.

"Aside from extremely established pundits, like Ann Coulter, I don't see a lot of conservative books catching on. The real issue-oriented books are a lot less prevalent," said Adrian Zackheim, who heads the conservative Sentinel imprint at Penguin Group (USA).

Authors of the right are unsure who to attack and who to defend. There are no clear front-runners, Democratic or Republican, for the 2008 election. Democrats took over Congress after the 2006 election, but publishers agree they have been in power too briefly, and have accomplished too little, to anger the right.

Meanwhile, publishers say they rarely see proposals for books that praise Bush. His presidency is perceived as essentially over, and increasingly unpopular, even among those who have supported him.

"The ongoing war in Iraq and his positions on immigration and education has made it harder to get anyone to write books that rally behind him," Marji Ross said.

For liberals, as noted by BookExpo speaker Paul Krugman, the current trend is re energizing the left, moving beyond the rants of Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" and Krugman's 2003 best seller, "The Great Unraveling." Krugman, promoting the fall release "The Conscience of a Liberal," called for a "New" New Deal and expressed relief over Bush's declining approval ratings.

Of course, a little anger doesn't hurt, especially among the dependably Democratic publishing crowd. Another BookExpo guest, former CIA official Valerie Plame, is vowing to publish a planned memoir, "Fair Game," the story of her CIA career and the 2003 outing that led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis Libby. Last week, Plame and publisher Simon & Schuster announced that they were suing the CIA, accusing the government of illegally refusing to let her write about the specific dates she worked for the agency. At a BookExpo luncheon, Plame spoke up for the publishers' favorite cause: free speech.

"I am entitled to write my story," said Plame, who before the lunch revealed a gift for self-censorship on the convention floor, a firm, but charming source of "no comment" when asked about her book or even her thoughts on BookExpo America.

No releases attained sudden fame at BookExpo, although booksellers and publishers praised such fall titles as Richard Russo's novel "Bridge of Sighs" and Alan Greenspan's memoir "The Age of Turbulence." There was little discussion about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," coming out July 21, but such books seem beyond mere conversation, like trying to "buzz" the moon and the stars.

New releases topped 290,000 in 2006, according to statisticians R.R. Bowker, which, thanks to revised methodology, added a bountiful 100,000 titles to previous estimates. "We put out more than 1,000 new titles a week, and that's still a tiny percentage of how many books are being published," said George Jones, CEO of the superstore chain Borders Group Inc.

BookExpo reminds you of how the new becomes old, like watching Pete Hamill promote his new book, "The Gift," while a few aisles away, at the "Remainders" section of the convention, a previous Hamill book, "Downtown," was being sold for $3.

Such an incomprehensible number of books, and such a limited public attention span, would make the average industry turn in rage on itself. But publishing is a civil business, where a "Conscience of a Liberal" pin, promoting a W.W. Norton release, was worn by a Simon & Schuster publicist, or where Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin would speak up for Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Woo," a novel being published by Riverhead.

"The first time I attended BookExpo I was totally stressed out; the number of books overwhelmed me. I wondered how my work would ever be noticed," said author Ridley Pearson, whose new thriller, "Killer Weekend," comes out next month. "But I've since learned that it isn't really competitive sports. Good books help each other, and support for other writers is a way of supporting ourselves."

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