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Going Rouge and the Art of Jujitsu Publishing

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It was just six weeks ago that OR Books, the new publishing company set up by John Oakes and myself, decided to enter the fray against Sarah Palin by publishing our now much talked-about anthology, "Going Rouge." In doing so, we realized we would not be competing on a level playing field. The book we were up against, Sarah Palin's own "Going Rogue," is the lead title this fall from HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, one of the largest media corporations on earth. Harper had agreed to pay the ex-Alaskan governor an advance reputed to be $7 million dollars, aiming to make at least some of this back from a first printing of one and half million copies. Pre-sales alone had taken their book to number one on Amazon.

On our side, the resources were less extravagant. OR Books has a full-time staff of two, John and me, together with help from a small group of talented part-timers. The OR office rotates between the Eros café on New York's 7th Avenue during the day, and the bar at El Quijote, next to the Chelsea Hotel, at night. The more stressful the day, the earlier we head for the evening office. "Going Rouge," a dazzling philippic of acrid Palintology assembled by Nation editors Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, is our first book.

Battling on such unpromising terrain, we realized that employing the strength of our opponents against themselves held the best, perhaps the only, chance of success. Call it the jujitsu approach to publishing. It involved positioning our book so that whenever "Going Rogue" was discussed, "Going Rouge" would be brought into the frame too. We had to become the skunk at Palin's garden party.

We were helped in this in a number of ways: First was the devilish play on Harper Collins' title (the creation of the book's agent Deirdre Mullane) that we took as our own. There is something about the juxtaposition of "Rogue" and "Rouge" that reduces otherwise firm minds to jelly. It led to a variety of gratifying high profile mix-ups of the two books on cable television, including twice on CNN, and prompted someone identified only as SR to respond angrily to our Nation magazine email promotion: "Going ROUGE? It's ROUGE [sic], not rouge. What an embarrassment. Don't you have proof-readers?"

We had sharpened the satirical edge of our cover by selecting a portrait of Palin that bore an uncanny similarity to that on her own book. It features the same distant gaze that she regularly adopts, perhaps to keep a watchful eye on the Russians across the Bering Strait. We distinguished our cover by setting her against a dark, stormy sky and by including the subtitle "Sarah Palin - An American Nightmare".

But most important to our jujitsu strategy was the media's infatuation with what they call "both sides of the story." In fact the supposedly even-handed approach of mainstream media is generally a fiction. The fulcrum is rarely placed at the center of the real debate. We can have a raging controversy about whether more troops should be sent to Afghanistan or whether the existing numbers should be maintained, but you'll be hard pressed to find any respectable commentator joining with what the majority of Americans and Afghanis appear to want, which is that we just pull out.

Pretense of balance is, however, vital to the way media sells itself and "Going Rouge" thus became a handy counterweight to its competitor. "Satire or Sabotage?" trumpeted the hosts of Entertainment Tonight's "The Insider" in their segment on the book. "You decide!" Similar weighing of the alternatives appeared on "Hardball" and "Countdown," and in Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. Even Fox News, co-owned by the same corporation as our rival publisher, speculated on which book would sell most, concluding it would probably be Palin's because "she's appearing on Oprah".

This juxtaposition of the two books has produced a torrent of orders. We are now selling hundreds each day. It has also enraged many Sarah Palin supporters, as evidenced by the flood of caustic e-mails arriving in the OR Books comment box. Some are sniffily self-righteous: " It is obvious you won't make it in decent circles as you have no moral compass," wrote a budding Miss Manners from VA. Others are more direct: "I will ... be on the watch for other slippery, conniving, left winged [sic] corporations or organizations that attempt to sway political opinion with fake products ...Sneaky, conniving, crooks!" And a few are darkly menacing, including one that juxtaposes photographs of spent bullets next to a description of the publishers, resulting in my partner sleeping even less than usual.

But this sort of thing goes with the territory. And for every raging conservative who has assailed us for "making a buck off the backs of honest capitalists!" there have been others, from all around the country, who have written to thank us for taking the fight to Palin. Here, for instance is the manager from a Midwestern branch of a large chain bookstore: "My corporate office recently scheduled an event that, although will bring me tons of business, does little to excite me and make me happy. Sarah Palin will be signing her new book at my store. I not only despise the woman, but, as a female, think she is a disgrace to those of us who actually have some common sense ... good luck with the book." (It was with regret that we had to inform her that our paperback is currently available only online--at www.orbooks.com).

Our resolve stiffened by such heartwarming support, we now head into the final round of Rogue vs Rouge. Publication day for both books is this Tuesday, November 17th. The night before, for the red corner, Palin will appear on Oprah; for the blue, we have Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel on Larry King Live. Naomi Klein will appear on CNN the following morning. In between, we will be gathering at a nightclub in Chelsea to "Paint the Town Rouge" in the company of a few Sarah Palin lookalikes, an Alaskan flag, and a great deal of booze. We already know it's going to be a victory celebration, sweeter, we're sure, than anything happening over at HarperCollins.

"Going Rouge: Sarah Palin - An American Nightmare" is available ONLY direct from OR Books at www.orbooks.com

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