By David Streitfeld
Forget about all those polls where people say they're turned off by the tale of Bill & Monica. Follow the money. Out in the real America, folks are putting down hard-earned cash to buy the Starr report.
Never mind that it's available for free on the Internet, that many newspapers published either the whole thing or big chunks, that you can hear it endlessly dissected on radio and TV. It's a bestseller, one of the most successful quickie publishing operations since the Watergate transcripts a quarter-century ago.
"People want to see for themselves," says Glenna Todd. "They don't want it filtered through the media."
Todd sells books to Middle America. Her small independent store, Bookshoppe of Lee's Summit, is about 12 miles from Independence, Mo., former home and final resting place of the unabashedly forthright President Truman. Merle Mil ler's "Plain Speaking," a so-called "oral biography" of Truman, is a steady seller thereabouts.
These days, however, it's been overtaken by the Starr report, heralded as a masterpiece of presidential evasiveness. Todd sold 12 copies of one version and five of another since they came in at the end of last week. Counting the two editions as one book puts it No. 2 on her nonfiction bestseller list.
"Some are buying it because they consider it to be a piece of history, some are buying it because they want to see what all the media hype is all about, and some are buying it because they just want to see what happened," says Todd.
Yesterday, with the release of President Clinton's video testimony as well as thousands of pages of additional material, the publishers geared up again. Pocket Books announced plans to issue within a week an unabridged oversize paperback containing "just about all of it," a spokeswoman says. It will also do a separate paperback of highlights. Between the two of them, the press run will be 750,000 copies. That's bestseller level. Both editions will have introductions by the Wall Street Journal's Phil Kuntz.
"People are saying they're tired of this, but we're selling tens of thousands of copies of the original report," says Theresa Zoro, Pocket's associate director of publicity.
Pocket's edition now has 800,000 in print. "In airports, as clerks open the boxes, people are just grabbing them," says Zoro.
Meanwhile, PublicAffairs will do between 100,000 and 150,000 copies of "The Starr Evidence," containing the complete text of the grand jury testimonies of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky plus other material, including articles from The Washington Post. Its original edition of the report, now only a week old, has 400,000 copies in print.
"While this may make us uncomfortable, and it does, it's still history," says PublicAffairs chief Peter Osnos.
A mere two years ago, when he was at Times Books, Osnos published Clinton's policy tract "Between Hope and History."
"I'm very proud to have published Clinton's book," he says. "I'm sad it's come to this, but it's history, and we're here to publish as much as we can of books the public appears to be interested in."
Publishing the Starr material has turned out to be a highly profitable endeavor. (A third house, Prima, also did an edition of the original report.) Since the material is in the public domain, no royalties need to be paid.
The same is true of "The Grand Jury Testimony of William Jefferson Clinton," a $14.98 videotape being rushed out by MPI Media later this week. It's the company's biggest hit since "Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film," and is expected to do significantly better than "California v. O.J. Simpson: The Opening Statements."
"People were tired of that trial," says MPI spokeswoman Natalie Olinger. "They didn't want to see it." With the Clinton tape, on the other hand, "the initial response has been more than we expected. We initially thought of doing 40,000 copies, and have now increased it to 100,000."
The four-hour video, says MPI Chief Executive Officer Waleed R. Ali in a note on the company's Web site, "will be released in its entirety without editing or narration. . . . Making it available in this format allows Americans who wish to see the grand jury testimony to do so without the usual gratuitous commentary that accompanies video sound bytes on television."
Of course, it also makes the tape even more profitable for MPI.
Still, at the moment there's demand for all sorts of Starr stuff. Based on advance orders, the MPI tape was No. 1 on the Amazon.com bestseller list yesterday, ahead even of Stephen King's new novel, which goes on sale today.
In Lee's Summit, Glenna Todd already has a waiting list of customers for the video. It's only four or five people, but waiting lists of any sort are unusual in her store. A couple of customers have asked to be notified about the new Starr books as well.
But let's keep things in perspective. The No. 1 bestseller at the Bookshoppe is "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution."
"Weight control," says Todd. "That's something people really identify with."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company