Sree's Stories


Monday, March 16, 1998
Pg. D8

Documentaries Jump from Small Screen to Bookstores

By Sreenath Sreenivasan

Although the TV-watching public has long been familiar with shows based
on high-quality books, few readers have looked to television to produce
good written works.

Peter Kaufman is trying to change that. Mr. Kaufman, president of the
privately held TV Books L.L.C., thinks that "much of the finest
intellectual property in the world is being developed for television." His
four-year-old company in New York publishes books based on programming
made for networks like PBS, A & E and the History Channel and written by
those intimately involved in the productions.

Consider "Reagan," a four-and-a-half-hour documentary that was
broadcast recently on public television. Produced as part of the
award-winning series "The American Experience" by WGBH in Boston, the
program was a result of several years of research and study, but only a
small percentage of the material made it into the final documentary. "It
seemed a shame to not use everything we had gathered, but that is what
happens in this business," said Margaret Drain, executive producer of "The
American Experience."

Enter Mr. Kaufman and his proposal for a book based on that documentary
and on others. A resulting deal calls for TV Books to publish six books
based on programs in the series over the next two years.

The first is "Reagan: An American Story," which was written by Adriana
Bosch, a producer of the documentary, and will arrive in bookstores in
April. "The decision made sense on a lot of levels," Ms. Drain said, "but
mainly because it is a way for us to expand our brand."

Mr. Kaufman would not disclose financial details of the deal. TV Books
has published 11 books so far and Mr. Kaufman said he expected the company
to have sales of $2.5 million this year and $5 million in 1999. Mr.
Kaufman expects to publish 25 more titles this year.

Top-quality documentaries can cost more than $500,000 for a single
hour, and a majority of the interviews, archival photographs and scholarly
research never make it past the cutting room. For instance, only about 3
percent of the 62 hours of taped interviews made it on the air in the
Reagan documentary. For producers and directors, a companion book has
become a natural outlet for the unused material and another source of
revenue. And because they draw on material already being produced, these
types of books can have lower development and marketing costs.

"I think it is a viable business model," said Michael Coffey, managing
editor of Publishers Weekly. "Long-form TV cannot cover all the bases, and
books can serve to answer questions raised in the show." Mr. Coffey ought
to know: He is the editor of "The Irish in America," a book published by
Hyperion, a unit of the Walt Disney Company, that served as a companion
volume to the PBS television program of the same title, which was a
collaboration between WGBH and Disney.

While generations of movies and television shows have had book tie-ins
and hundreds of books have been made into feature films and television
movies, TV Books is thought to be the first publisher that started as an
independent company focusing solely on making books from television and
movies.

And in yet another example of the ever-expanding search for synergy in
the world of publishing, a majority stake in TV Books was acquired in
December by Broadway Video Inc., the film and TV company owned by Lorne
Michaels, the executive producer of "Saturday Night Live." TV Books also
signed a distribution deal with HarperCollins, owned by the News
Corporation, which has significant television interests.

"The biggest influence in book sales today is clearly television and
films," Mr. Coffey said. If a book is mentioned on "The Oprah Winfrey
Show" or tied to a movie, it can "catch fire," he said. Of course, not all
books with a television connection do well, but it certainly does not hurt
to have exposure in the mass media.

The editors, designers and marketers at TV Books work closely with the
writers and producers of the documentaries to re-create the visual
experience of the program while greatly expanding on its themes. The
danger remains that if a television show is not successful, then the books
can languish at the store.

There are drawbacks to working with authors who are immersed in
television or film projects. They tend not to have time to concentrate on
the books until after completing work on the film.

For a tiny publishing house, TV Books has attracted important authors
and tackled hard-hitting topics. These include Russian history ("Russia's
War: Blood Upon the Snow" by Richard Overy, based on a 10-hour
documentary); the Irish Republican Army ("Behind the Mask: The IRA and
Sinn Fein" by Peter Taylor) and Arab-Israeli relations ("Israel and the
Arabs: The 50 Years' War" by Ahron Bregman and Jihan El-Tahri).

James Billington, the Librarian of Congress and a noted expert on
Russia, is writing a companion book to his three-hour public television
series, "The Face of Russia."

Jessica Yu, who won a 1997 Academy Award for her documentary "Breathing
Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," signed a deal to write a book
to go with a Home Box Office documentary about a New York mental hospital.
The book and the film are scheduled to have their debuts next spring.

Still, not all the offerings by TV Books are serious public affairs
volumes. The first of its books to go into a fourth printing is called "TV
Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes," a collection of guides to
the houses of such famous television families as the Bradys, the Cleavers
and the Munsters.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Peter Kaufman, left, president and publisher of TV Books,
with three company executives -- Joe Gannon, Summer Hixson and Albert
Gottesman, standing -- is reversing the usual book-to-TV route. (Fred R.
Conrad/The New York Times)