A paperback edition of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" is scheduled to be published before the end of the month by a consortium of publishing houses and sympathizers under the cloak of anonymity, a spokesman confirmed yesterday.
Rushdie has been in hiding since he was sentenced to death by the Iranian leadership three years ago for blasphemy against Islam. The sentence was renewed on its Feb. 14 anniversary date, along with a pointed reminder that it also applied to publishers of "The Satanic Verses."
A spokesman for the consortium who asked to remain anonymous said that "the idea is to publish the book strongly, and demonstrate the strength with which the principles behind the publication are held by everyone in the industry." The spokesman declined to list any of the group's members or characterize them in any way.
Everything, it seems, is being done as discreetly as possible. An executive at one leading bookstore chain said: "I don't even know who I'm buying the book from." It was the first time, he added, that he could recall being in such a situation.
Feb. 14 was also supposed to have marked the announcement of a paperback edition from a consortium organized by the Authors Guild, but that time the deal fell through. Efforts to publish a paperback in England, where the book remains a source of tremendous anger in the Muslim community, are apparently much less developed.
The first American printing of the $10 paperback will be 100,000 copies -- a relatively large number. Jim Tenney, head buyer of the Olsson's chain here, said he expected the paperback to reignite interest, "but I don't think it's going to last that long." As a point of comparison, the five-store chain has sold 18 copies of the hardcover since last July 1.
The original paperback publication of the book was to have been done by Viking a year after the 1989 hardcover. That was postponed because of the death threat and a desire not to aggravate the situation. For a time, Rushdie specifically endorsed this approach as allowing the creation of what he called "a space for reconciliation."
In a speech in New York last December, the author changed his mind. The book, he said, "must be freely available and easily affordable, if only because if it is not read and studied, then these years will have no meaning." The next month Viking reassigned the paperback rights to Rushdie, clearing the way for the book to be issued by someone else. Seventy-two publishers and other interested groups signed a statement last month asserting "strong moral support for the paperback publication." Two publishers that did not were the industry's largest, Random House Inc. and Simon and Schuster.
While the consortium spokesman said that "basically we have achieved a unanimous level of support," that appears open to dispute. An S&S spokeswoman declined to return a call yesterday, but a Random spokesman said that "we have not been connected with an effort to form a consortium."
The cover of the new edition of "The Satanic Verses" is rather stark. On the top is the author's name; on the bottom, the name of the book. In between are the words: "THE PAPERBACK."