Between now and December, scores of books on conservative topics will be published by houses large and small—the most ever produced in a single season. Already, 2003 has been a banner year for such books, with at least one and often two conservative titles hitting PW's bestseller list each week. Perhaps the biggest sign of the category's ascendance was the founding of conservative imprints at Crown and Penguin this spring (News, Apr. 28), shortly before Bookspan announced the fledgling stages of a conservative book club. Suddenly, a group that has often complained about being excluded from mainstream publishing has grabbed the industry's attention.
At the most commercial end of the spectrum, books by cable pundits top the lists at several major houses, including Bill O'Reilly's Who's Looking Out for You (Broadway, Sept.) and Tucker Carlson's Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News (Warner, Oct.). Talk show host Michael Savage will return with The Enemy Within (Dec.), his follow-up to Savage Nation, a PW bestseller for 15 weeks this year. His publisher is WND Books, an outgrowth of the popular conservative Web site World Net Daily that's distributed by religion publisher Thomas Nelson. The one-year-old house also aims to reignite the media bias debate with Journalistic Fraud: How the New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted by Bob Kohn (July). A few months later, Bernard Goldberg will feed the flames with Arrogance, Rescuing America from the Media Elite (Warner, Nov.), a sequel to his 2001 bestseller, Bias. Meanwhile, independent publisher Regnery continues the partisan mudslinging that characterizes the most popular conservative books with Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years (Oct.) by National Review editor Richard Lowry.
While polemics like these have dominated bestseller lists, close examinations of social and cultural issues have found a home at right-leaning independent presses. Spence Publishing, a small Texas house, is releasing a revised edition of Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder by Wesley Smith (June). San Francisco—based Encounter Books is publishing The Return of Anti-Semitism by Gabriel Schoenfeld (Oct.). And ISI Books, an imprint associated with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative educational foundation, will present Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's first book in English since 1995, Russia in Collapse (July).
Clearing the Path
Only a decade ago, conservative publishing was a lonely venture, often powered more by conviction and personal taste than the corporate mandate to sell more books. "It would have been unthinkable 10 years ago that mainstream trade publishers would embrace this trend," said Adam Bellow, who in 1988 became an editor at the Free Press, one of the few mainstream imprints that courted conservative titles.
Until 1994, Bellow worked under Erwin Glikes, an influential and forceful advocate for conservative books during the '80s and '90s. Best known for acquiring Allan Bloom's long-running bestseller The Closing of the American Mind (1987), plus books by Robert Bork, George Will, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, Glikes left the Free Press after Paramount bought its parent company, Macmillan, and died shortly afterward. He believed in publishing serious books on "fault line" issues that would appeal to conservatives, but that were well enough researched and argued to interest open-minded liberals. To Bellow, the recent success of conservative authors is "the culmination of a decade of successful efforts by Erwin to clear the path for conservative books."
As one of the few people in mainstream trade publishing trying to push conservative books with a scholarly spin, Glikes didn't have an easy time, though. "There was a tremendous amount of marketplace and institutional resistance," Bellow said. "From booksellers and distributors to reviews and marketing, Erwin had to fight every step of the way."
Conservatives with recognizable names and media platforms were easier to publish, though championing them was not often a route to popularity among one's colleagues. Judith Regan was an editor at Pocket Books in the early '90s when she first suggested publishing a book by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. "The editorial director said, 'Judith has reached a new low,' and people booed," she recalled. "People left nasty notes around the office and even in the bathroom." Still, she was able to sign up the book, which became a national bestseller.
Like most midlist authors in the mid- to late-'90s, conservative authors who lacked celebrity gloss or a controversial and timely subject found limited publishing options. In response, many turned to small and startup publishers. Without major marketing budgets, they relied on emerging publicity outlets such as talk radio, Web sites and direct marketing. Later, the meteoric rise of cable outlets like Fox went even further in establishing a right-wing media circuit that reached millions of potential readers.
As conservative authors adapted to these opportunities, there was a marked improvement in how they presented themselves, according to John Ekizian, a freelance publicist who was publicity director at the Free Press in 1996, when its biggest bestseller, The Bell Curve, was published. In the early '90s, "most conservative authors didn't know anything about TV," he said. "It was hard to get them mainstream bookings unless it was a debate about an issue. But now the media knows conservatives sell and are really good on TV."
The house that has made the most of available media and helped bring conservative books into the mainstream is Regnery Publishing. Now based in Washington, D.C., the company started in 1948 in Chicago, publishing a number of libertarian intellectual classics, such as God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley Jr. (1951) and The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk (1954). In 2002, the independent press wowed the industry with seven New York Times bestsellers. And in the first quarter of 2003, three of its six books hit that list.
Richard Vigilante, who was editorial director, vice-president and associate publisher at Regnery from 1994 to 1999, said that it was during a meeting about Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access (1996) that the Regnery staff came up with its signature promotional strategy. "We decided to forget that we were in the book business and imagined we were running a presidential campaign," he said. Responsible for marketing as well as editing, Vigilante came to eschew any distinction between the two roles as he worked with his staff to shape books to provoke an immediate response from readers and the media. "There were two books in every book," he said. "One for the readers and one for the [TV] producers."
That approach still serves the house well, according to Marji Ross, who recently succeeded Alfred Regnery as president and publisher. The house now chooses its authors in large part on the basis of their ability to get their message across in the media. Observing that book reviews are the least-read section of many papers, Ross aims to get her books mentioned in the news section. "We've always tried to make our marketing about news in the book, not about [the publication of] the book," she said.
"The growth of talk radio, Fox News, Wal-Mart—all of these things have helped us," Ross added, noting that Regnery books also sell well in the chains, at the price clubs and on Web sites like Amazon, all of which became bigger in the '90s. The popularity of conservative Web sites like the Drudge Report, WorldNetDaily, NewsMax, Townhall, Front Page and Andrew Sullivan's blog have also made it easier to spread news rapidly about the house's books.
A Swiftly Tilting Business
But is Regnery becoming a victim of its own success? Not only has it lost several of its bestselling authors to mainstream houses, but Crown and Penguin both poached former Regnery editors to acquire books for their new imprints. In May, Crown hired Jed Donahue, a young editor who worked with Bill Gertz, G. Gordon Liddy and William F. Buckley. And Penguin took on Bernadette Malone, who edited bestsellers by Kenneth Timmerman, Michelle Malkin and Mona Charen.
Regnery's Ross said she isn't concerned about the imprints. "Crown and Penguin aren't going to change what we do best, which is understand the conservative marketplace," she said. "The single biggest impact is that they will make it more expensive to sign up authors," Ross said. "They can throw a lot of money around—too much in many cases. But they don't fully understand the point of view and values of conservative readers. They also won't be as good at finding new, less-famous authors and won't be as shrewd about which media work best."
At the new Crown imprint, Steve Ross traces his interest in conservative publishing to Anne Coulter, whose bestseller Slander he published in 2002, making him a relative newcomer to the genre. "When you look at the national and regional voting patterns, a rising interest in conservatism is clearly what happened," he said. "Just look at the impact of Fox. There's a significant market opportunity there, and a civic responsibility."
After the June publication of Coulter's new book, Treason, Crown Forum will release a new title every month. Next up are July books by two writers from the popular conservative Web site Newsmax.com, which will help promote them: James Hirsen's Tales from the Left Coast: True Stories of Hollywood's Stars and their Outrageous Politics and Carl Limbacher's investigation of Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions, Hillary's Scheme.
Penguin's Adrian Zackheim has a longer history with conservative books, having published Margaret Thatcher, Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole over the years. Yet he, too, has clearly taken a page from Regnery's playbook: the unnamed imprint's first acquisition was a new book by Mona Charen, the CNN correspondent whose Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First was a bestseller for Regnery earlier this year. Since Zackheim's first list won't debut until spring 2004, its overall character is not yet clear, nor how it will show the influence of Penguin Group CEO David Shanks, who will weigh in on acquisitions and marketing.
Brad Miner, executive director of Bookspan and the author of The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia (Touchstone, 1996), is also planning a new conservative book club. "[In terms of publishing], the time is right, and the mood of the country is right," he said. "I'm not sure there's been a hard right turn, but there's a tremendous audience whose needs have not been addressed."
As for the steady stream of books that will come from the larger houses' imprints, Miner wondered if "their eyes are bigger than their stomachs," though he approved of the decision to hire editors who are experienced with conservative publishing. "[These] publishers, when they're honest with themselves, don't get it and so they hired someone else who does get it, which is very smart," he said.
But others wonder if the new imprints will appeal to conservatives as strongly as hoped. "They're going to have a difficult time convincing conservatives that this is the kind of counterculture, guerrilla publishing operation that they want to support," said Bellow.
Others point out the commercial pressures that the imprints might face. According to Peter Osnos, the publisher and chief executive at Public Affairs who headed Random House's Times Books Division from 1991 to 1996: "The success of the Free Press in the early and mid-1990s was definitely a result of [Glikes's] publishing judgment and skill. But it was not replicated after his death. Why? He created the market, and then the books got too pricey. When the books become too expensive, the stresses in commercial marketplace become too intense."
But no matter what happens with the large publishers' new imprints, the coming years are bound to feature more conservative voices. "There's an undeniably large market for conservative books," said Bellow. "As to the publishing industry, business rationality has trumped ideological aversion. And that's capitalism."