For decades, the Kennedys have been the most documented family in America, inspiring a spectrum of books, from histories to biographies to photo compilations, that play up the elements of mystery, scandal, romance and conspiracy that surround them. Leading up to the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, numerous network and cable TV specials and commemorative events are likely to spur interest in the tribute books arriving this fall. But despite lasting public fascination with the family, booksellers say that overall demand for Kennedy books is decreasing gradually.
Publishers still have high hopes, though, and not without reason. There have already been two major Kennedy-related bestsellers this year, both of which have about 300,000 copies in print. Historian Robert Dallek's benchmark biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917—1963 (Little, Brown, May) offers major revelations about Kennedy's health and political machinations based on new access to family papers, while Edward Klein explores their macabre fates in The Kennedy Curse (St. Martin's, July).
This fall, booksellers expect strong sales from two books that offer fresh angles on JFK, both of which have print runs that top 100,000 copies. Remembering Jack: Intimate and Unseen Photographs of the Kennedys (Bulfinch, Oct.) by JFK's personal photographer, Jacques Lowe, features unpublished photos from the '50s as well as iconic images of the young president. From Love Field: A Remembrance (Rugged Land, Nov.), is based on a recently rediscovered eyewitness account of the assassination by Nellie Connally, who was riding in the front seat of the limo when JFK and her husband, the late governor of Texas, John Connally, were shot.
Other new titles include Four Days in November: The Original Coverage of the John F. Kennedy Assassination by the New York Times staff (St. Martin's, Nov.) and We'll Never Be Young Again (Tallfellow, Nov.), an account of JFK's final week by Chuck Fries and Irv Wilson combined with reflections by both famous and ordinary people. President Kennedy Has Been Shot by Newseum (an interactive news museum) with Cathy Trost and Susan Bennett (Sourcebooks, Nov.), offers journalists' accounts plus an audio CD featuring original news broadcasts and government communications on the day of the assassination.
Edward Ash-Milby, biography and memoir buyer for Barnes & Noble, predicted that many Kennedy bios and histories would be strong through the December holiday season, including Thomas Maier's The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings (Basic, Oct.), a multigenerational portrait that explores the family's Irish Catholic immigrant heritage. He also cited a number of pictorials that he expects to do well, such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Life in Pictures (Phaidon Press, Oct.). "Overall, it's the books that have substance that last," he said. "The more salacious sell at first, but they die off quickly."
Around the country, booksellers are regarding the anniversary with different expectations. Barbara Meade, one of the owners of Washington, D.C.'s Politics and Prose, has many customers with some sort of personal connection with the Kennedy administration or who are old enough to remember JFK. The store is featuring 10 Kennedy titles—a big buy for them. "We're anticipating selling those and reordering more as Christmas season comes," Meade said.
In Boston, the epicenter of Kennedy observance, Tim Huggins, owner of Newtonville Books in Newton, Mass., said he'll stock as many titles as possible. At nearby Wellesley Booksmith, manager Rich Nunes said that the anniversary as well as a loyal cadre of buyers would spur sales: "There are Kennedy fanatics who will read almost anything." He wondered, though, if so many titles might make a book's pub date more important than its content. "The 10th book I see might be the best book," he said. "But by then I'm all Kennedied out."
Away from the East Coast, booksellers have lower expectations. Steve Shapiro at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., said that there has been a downturn in Kennedy interest over the years. The store ordered a variety of titles but in limited numbers. "I think the saturation is such that you end up returning books," he said. With the exception of titles about Jacqueline Kennedy, he noted, virtually no one under the age of 30 buys Kennedy books.
Virginia Duffy, a buyer at Page One in Albuquerque, N.Mex., said adult trade sales have been very slow so far. "I think people are tired of Kennedy books," she said. "None of the new titles have sold." Sales do perk up, however, when a Kennedy story appears on TV, which means the slump may reverse as the anniversary approaches.
Though regional variations and an aging demographic certainly are having an impact on the niche, there's a more pressing problem. While Jay Dantry of Jay's Bookstall in Pittsburgh, Pa., has found that Caroline Kennedy's A Patriots Handbook (Hyperion, May) was a popular graduation gift last spring, sales of other Kennedy titles have been flat. "They're scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point," he surmised. "I mean, there's not much left to tell."