The past 25 years has seen a tidal wave of change in the book business, and nowhere has that upheaval been more evident than in conservative publishing. Changes to the way books are sold and marketed have transformed the entire industry; they have also helped turn conservative publishing into a major force in the book business.
Think back for a moment to 1996. Barnes & Noble was the biggest book retailer in the country, with more than 1,000 stores (including B. Dalton mall stores), representing about 15% of annual consumer book sales in the U.S. Followed closely by Borders (remember them?), which accounted for more than 150 superstores, 900-plus mall stores, and about 12% of sales. Independent bookstores were struggling, having shrunk from 58% of the market (in 1972) to under 20%, in danger of being snuffed out by the superstores, and soon to be attacked on another flank by big-box retailers like Costco and Walmart.
Conservative books were, by and large, niche books, given little attention from “book media” and even less shelf space from retailers. Of course, there was the occasional conservative bestseller, like Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be from Pocket Books, which debuted on the PW bestseller list on Sept. 14, 1992, and sold over two million copies in its first two years in print. And there were individuals who championed conservative books, notably Erwin Glikes at the Free Press. But there was no conservative book program among the big New York houses, which dominated the publishing scene.
Two remarkable events occurred in 1996, and both would have a huge impact on conservative book publishing: the first full year of operations at Amazon and the launch of Fox News. Those two forces provided exactly what conservative books needed to take off—a giant book retailer that carried, quite literally, every title and was designed to make finding the books you like easy, and a dedicated national platform for raising the visibility of conservative issues, authors, and books. Together, they greatly enhanced the public’s ability to learn about conservative books, find them, and purchase them.
Of course, it took a few years for these currents to carve a new canyon through book publishing. When I joined Regnery Publishing (founded in 1947) in May 1999, I quickly learned that conservative books were still treated as ugly stepchildren by bricks-and-mortar retail, the exception of Limbaugh’s success notwithstanding. If politically or socially conservative books were in stock at all, especially in the independent stores, they were typically hidden under the stairs or next to the bathroom. But the winds were shifting.
Conservative books no longer needed to depend on the mainstream media or the legacy retailers for attention. At Regnery, we designed our marketing and promotion campaigns to focus on media outlets that featured conservative viewpoints, specifically Fox News and conservative talk radio. We realized that hosts who respected our authors and our readers were more likely to help us sell books, and we were right. Instead of using retail placement and point-of-purchase merchandising to draw buyers, we drove them into the stores in waves through conservative media outlets, and the retailers were besieged. We often heard that retailers were hesitant not to carry our books for fear of alienating their customers. Month after month, we placed conservative titles on the bestseller lists, as those customers gobbled up conservative books.
Speaking of bestseller lists, another momentous change occurred, in 2001, that helped conservative books: the launch of BookScan. Previously, bestseller status was bestowed by newspapers, the most famous list being the New York Times. But conservatives had long complained about the bias of that list, suspecting that liberal editors had their fingers on the scale when ranking conservative books. There was no hard proof, of course, but when Nielsen began reporting data-driven, real-time numbers of book sales each week, everyone could see that conservative books fared better than in the curated lists from the Times.
By 2003, New York publishers had gotten the memo: Conservatives actually do read, they in fact do buy books, and we are missing a giant chunk of the market by not serving that audience. It wasn’t just Rush Limbaugh—Ann Coulter, Gary Aldrich, Dinesh D’Souza, Barbara Olson, Bill Gertz all had bestsellers that hit #1. So, Random House founded Crown Forum, Penguin (still its own company) founded Sentinel, Simon & Schuster followed suit in 2006 with Threshold, HarperCollins did so in 2010 with Broadside. Even the Book of the Month Club got on board in 2003, launching a conservative book club: American Compass.
In many ways, the first 10 years of this century were a golden age for conservative books and authors. As Republic Books’ president (and former Regnery president) Al Regnery put it, “Regnery set the table for what was to become a much more vibrant conversation about the political direction of America.” New York houses started throwing big advances at authors who formerly were limited to smaller independent houses with smaller pocketbooks; Fox News and conservative talk radio were booming, providing a giant platform for conservative books and conservative authors.
But over the past 10 years, storm clouds have darkened the landscape of publishing, thanks almost entirely to social media and digital commerce. Social media platforms have swamped broadcast media, especially when it comes to daily (hourly) news. Reporting has been replaced by sharing, and analysis has been replaced by sound bites. As digital commerce is driven by eyeballs and clicks, headlines have morphed into click bait.
While we seem to be drowning in “information,” what has been lost, unfortunately, is the middle ground. “Back in the ’90s,” says bestselling author Dinesh D’Souza, “there was a professional center; people boasted about being in the center. But today, they are embarrassed about being there. Writers—from both the right and the left—used to be sustained by an intellectual community, and that community has become fractured.”
Today, our news, our shopping, our lives are so curated that we rarely bump up against anyone with a different opinion, never mind world view. Consequently, our debate muscle has atrophied and our tolerance meter has died.
One of the most sinister results of this balkanization is the emergence of a virulent cancel culture plague. In a world where more information is available than ever before in history, loud voices and forces are at work to silence opinions with which they disagree. Step out of line, and you will be vilified, you will be demonized, you will be branded.
Cancel culture has also infected the major publishing houses; a well-placed New York publishing executive told me, “If you put it to a vote, probably fewer than 1% of people who work in publishing want their company to publish books by Republicans.” Forefront Books president and publisher Jonathan Merkh went further, saying, “I believe it’s quite likely that major publishing houses will choose not to publish any conservative books.” For a society built on liberty and free speech, this is a toxic development.
These forces are a threat to all publishing. It is not that books aren’t selling: Americans bought more than 825 million print books last year, up nearly 9% from 2020. No, the threat to publishing is the very real danger that books will no longer be able to teach us something we don’t already know.
If we have already decided what the answers are, if we already “know” what the news is—and what it means—before it even happens, we are doomed. Doomed to fracture as a society. Doomed to lose friends and family. Doomed to stifle creativity, adventure, and discovery. Doomed to repeat some very tragic mistakes of history. And sooner or later, people will realize there is no longer any reason to read books at all.
But books themselves can be the antidote. By definition, books require from a reader a degree of patience and an investment of time that tends to calm the nerves and quiet the shouting. I’m not suggesting books are bloodless—the best books are filled with passion. But reading a book should be a journey, not a slap in the face. As such, books have the potential to make people stop and think, rather than just react. We need books, from all points of view, now more than ever.
I fiercely object to the idea of censoring speech and banning books and canceling voices. Not because all books are great, not because all ideas have merit; certainly not because I agree with the opinions or conclusions of most books published. Few people do. Rather, I have faith, somehow, in the power of the agora. Don’t ban books that you think are bad—shine a light on hate and evil, and they will die. But we must shine that light equally across the board. We must truly allow the marketplace to decide, not feed the crowd only what is familiar and safe. Give them honey, give them vinegar, give them salt, give them fat. Set out a robust and vibrant buffet, and give everyone a seat at the table.
Marji Ross is principal of Marji Ross Consulting and former president and publisher of Regnery Publishing.