Conventional wisdom suggests that when two biographies go head to head, the first book to market has the edge. But a recent battle between portrayals of Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior presidential advisor, proves otherwise. PublicAffairs' Boy Genius, published as a trade paperback original, appeared in mid-January, two months ahead of the Wiley's hardcover Bush's Brain, yet the latter has outpaced the former in sales.

Although the books differ in format and price, they take similarly wary views of Rove's pervasive influence on Bush, and have each met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, the Houston Chronicle called Boy Genius "a detailed and chronological although somewhat dry recitation of Rove's rise," while noting that Bush's Brain provides "a multi-dimensional portrayal of Rove, who agreed to sit down with the authors." On the other hand, the Wall St. Journal described each book as having a "clip job feel."

The later pub date and hardcover format may have helped bestow the appearance of greater gravitas on Bush's Brain. Buyer Kay Marcotte of Page One in Albuquerque, N.M., reported that while the two books are currently selling at a similar rate, customers placed more pre-orders for Bush's Brain than for Boy Genius. "Bush's Brain may be perceived as newer information," she observed.

Still, the price difference between hardcover and paperback has had some effect on sales. At Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., co-owner Barbara Meade had sold only two copies of Bush's Brain a week after publication, as compared to "about 10 copies a month" of Boy Genius, which "only costs $15," she noted, "while Bush's Brain is $27.95."

But both Nielsen Bookscan figures and overall print figures suggest that the hardcover is outselling the paperback. While Boy Genius has not gone back to press since its 35,000-copy first printing, Bush's Brain has returned to press three times for a total of 80,000 copies. In addition, Bush's Brain reached #16 on the New York Times bestseller list on March 23 and #15 on March 30, before dropping to #26 on April 6. For its part, Boy Genius hit #9 on the Washington Post bestseller list on Feb. 9 and has remained there for four weeks, rising as high as #7.

The 256-page PublicAffairs title was a paperback current events "quickie" solicited from Shrub co-author Lou Dubose and journalists Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon after the Republicans bested the Democrats in the 2002 mid-term elections. "From conception to shipping we had about six weeks," said PublicAffairs publicity director Gene Taft.

Meanwhile, Wiley acquired Bush's Brain in May 2002 and originally scheduled it for this summer. But after the mid-term elections, TV news correspondent James C. Moore and Dallas Morning News bureau chief Wayne Slater agreed to deliver the 400-page hardcover sooner, according to Wiley trade v-p and publisher Joan O'Neil.

As it happens, the two books narrowly missed having the same title. "Apparently, Bush's three nicknames for Karl Rove are 'Bush's brain,' 'boy genius' and 'turd blossom,' " said Taft. "Note which one neither publisher chose to use."