Notable Books of 2009

Article excerpt

Journalists can benefit from long-form investigations

Only the staff of The I RE Journal would be crazy enough (or, if we wanted to place a shine on the project, service-oriented enough) to obsess all year trying to keep track of investigative and explanatory books written by American journalists, published in English and offered for sale in easily accessible retail outlets.

There is no one place to monitor to compile a comprehensive list, and nobody else (to our knowledge) even tries. Ultimately, we will fail to spot at least a few eligible books, which will quite likely result in plaintive letters from the authors and publishers.

Still, we soldier on. Much of our research occurs in bricksand-mortar bookstores. Hey, that's hard work, but somebody's got to do it. (Just joking -spending hours in bookstores browsing the shelves under the guise of "research" for The IRE journal is one of life's finest pleasures.) We also track reviews in trade magazines, especially Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal and Choice. We hear from authors, both within IRE and outside IRE, or their publicists.

Despite the widely discussed illness of print journalism, it seems the flood of investigative and explanatory books has not slowed. For that matter, even if the number would be halved, it is doubtful whether any mortal could digest the information from all the books on the list before a new year arrived, bringing a flood of new books.

For readers of this feature thinking of researching a book proposal, sharing it with a literary agent and hoping for a contract from a publisher, good news and bad news mingle. Many agents and acquiring editors say the market for new books is weak, mostly because of the extended economic hard times. Weak, however, does not mean non-existent. Lots of authors received contracts for investigative and explanatory books during 2009. The new deals sections in Publishers Weekly magazine and on a Web site named Publishers Marketplace should generally prove inspiring rather than discouraging.

Some of the publishers are part of multinational conglomerates such as Harper Collins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Yet they bring to market books that sometimes issue criticism of multinational corporate behavior. Other publishers are sizable but independent of larger corporate ownership, most notably W.W. Norton. Medium-sized and small presses show up on the list, as do a few of the more adventuresome university presses, in an era often termed the death of print, book publishing is still diverse.

The reason to read as many of the listed books as possible extends beyond general self-improvement. Obviously, some of the books are highly relevant to stories being reported by IRE members in newsrooms across the nation, or reported outside walled newsrooms by freelancers.

Some of the books will be entered by authors or publishers in the annual IRE awards competition. We will read the entry forms carefully, and perhaps extract valuable reporting and writing lessons from what the authors share, then share the lessons with you. (See the spring 2009 issue of The IRE Journal.)

Sometimes we receive questions about trends we might notice as we compile the annual list. Despite the length of the list found on the IRE Web site (more than 250 books), the sample is relatively small. Talking about trends makes little sense scientifically. It seems evident that at least a few books on the list will cover relatively ephemeral topics that qualify as scandals, such as the American military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the aftermath! of Hurricane Katrina, a specific spectacular homicide, a specific high-level politician accepting bribes or conducting an extramarital affair. Other books will cover seemingly endless phenomena that qualify as scandals, such as inadequate nursing care for the elderly, regulatory agencies taken captive by those they are supposed to regulate, criminal justice agencies that rush to judgment so that innocent defendants end up imprisoned, environmental degradation by for-profit corporations, campaign finance corruption, inequitable taxation by all levels of government, and many more evergreen problems begging for journalistic scrutiny. …