Two agents and two editors took up the subject of political books in the post-Trump era at the U.S. Book Show on Tuesday. Moderated by Jimmy So, editor of Columbia Global Reports at Columbia University, the wide-ranging conversation provided an in-depth look at perhaps the most heated issue in publishing in 2021.
The panel was held during a period featuring a growing backlash against the acquisition and publication of books by conservative leaders, including books by former Trump Administration officials that were rewarded with high advances. Senator Josh Hawley’s book contract was rescinded by Simon & Schuster following the January 6 Capitol Riot, and contracts for former Vice President Mike Pence and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway have drawn fire.
But the panelists were quick to widen the definition of political books. Simon and Schuster v-p and executive editor Eamon Dolan noted that the day the panel was held marked the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and argued that readers’ needs for deeper understandings of political issues are widening.
Tanya McKinnon, principal at McKinnon Literary, said: “I think people want political books because political books help them understand how those political forces are impacting their everyday lives and how we’re going to respond to some of these forces that feel very nefarious to us.” That need for understanding is driving a broader interest in what McKinnon called “the unprocessed history of the country.”
Given the backlash against many of the new and forthcoming titles by former Trump administration officials and supporter, Keith Urbahn said that he has seen a shift in how publisher advances and contracts are being administered, especially given the events of January 6. The Javelin literary founder and president, who formerly served as chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld when the latter was Secretary of Defense, has represented a number of conservative authors and said that those who insist on supporting the so-called Big Lie—the falsehood that the election was stolen by Joe Biden—are finding it much harder to land contracts.
“You cannot just get away, with a major publisher from the Big 5, with just telling your side of the story,” Urbahn said. “For those who were in the Trump administration, they’re being pressed in ways they weren’t before about confronting a culture of deceit and conspiracy theories.”
Broadside Books v-p and editor Eric Nelson cautioned that when major publishers deplatform books by figures like Hawley, they may inadvertently fuel sales for those books while driving their authors toward fringe publishers that may not rigorously fact-check their books. (As a rule, fact-checking is not an industry standard, even for nonfiction titles published by major houses.) Referring to an unnamed earlier book by Donald Trump that was published by a major publisher, Nelson said the quality was comparatively high because “he didn’t write it and a professional editor edited it. It’s much harder to write a whole book of craziness and get it past a mainstream publisher.”
Nelson said that much of his work at Broadside, the HarperCollins conservative imprint, is about distinguishing between credible authors he wants to publish and ones who are not credible. While acknowledging that many of his colleagues do not share the views of his authors, he insisted that they agree with that approach. “They understand that there’s a difference between, ‘Oh, I don’t like [conservative commentator] Ben Shapiro’ and, ‘oh, [conservative commentator] Candace Owens invents things daily.” (The Poynter Institute's fact-checking service PolitiFact has fact-checked one comment by Shapiro and four by Owens; all five comments were deemed false.)
Dolan reflected on similar experiences in editing Pope Francis. While personally disagreeing with some of the Pope’s beliefs, Dolan said, they were able to craft a respectful and productive working relationship based around the truth and a willingness to edit and revise. Dolan also spoke to his own personal views about why he believes S&S should publish a forthcoming memoir by former Vice President Pence but not Hawley's book.
“There is potential value in Pence’s status as an eyewitness,” Dolan said, pointing to the fact that Pence was one of the few administration officials to serve out all four years with Trump. “I’m eager to see what we’re able to draw from that book,” he added. By contrast, Dolan said that Hawley’s response to the January 6 riot was a cause for serious concern: “Whether he intended to incite violence is an open question, but many took it as such.”
Regardless of the ethics, space has clearly opened up for political books in the marketplace, especially by conservatives. This is because, Nelson noted, books that informed whether or not Trump would be impeached are no longer being published, and because books by prominent Democrats are not filling the void.
“So much of book buying demand depends on who is in the White House,” Urbahn added in agreement. “The Joe Biden approach is not lending itself to a lot of interest on the Democratic side. When you contrast it with the sugar high that was Donald Trump, it makes for less compelling reading.”
McKinnon said that she believes books about the pandemic, and climate change, will be a draw for readers going forward—along with the historical-political narratives she sees readers gravitating toward. Those books, she added, are a corrective to misunderstood events that people are eager to make sense of. Other panelists were in agreement, pointing in particular to the re-assessments of 9/11 that continued to be published for more than a decade after the terrorist attacks.
But as exposés continue to emerge about the Trump years, Urbahn said he expects books on the administration to continue to rise to the top, offering a deeper understanding of events that occurred at too-rapid a pace for people to process them. “Just think about the last year,” Urbahn said. “A pandemic. Donald Trump almost died at Walter Reed 3 weeks before the election. You can only process that with hindsight, and you can only process that with a good guide.”