This spring and summer, the proliferation of right-wing bestsellers was touted throughout the media, along with the creation of conservative imprints at Viking and Crown. But in the past six weeks, a slew of liberal authors have dominated the bestseller lists. Now, as the 2004 election year approaches, a daunting number of books about the incumbent president and his Democratic rivals will soon fill bookstores, more than even the most conscientious voter could be expected to read.
Faced with a vast number of nonfiction titles from all points on the political spectrum, some publishers are wondering if there might be a glut similar to that on the first anniversary of 9/11. At the same time, booksellers are expressing concern that the ascendance of titles by political celebrities might cause a number of significant books with less media cachet to be overlooked.
The Fall of Polemics
Although conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly appeared at the top of the New York Times nonfiction list for October 12, the four other top five titles—by Al Franken, Madeleine Albright, Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman—are from the left. Beyond that, nine of the top 10 slots are held by political polemics, biographies or memoirs, while the 10th—Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson—concerns one of the country's premier statesmen. Of the 10, only three are from conservative media personalities, while the rest are solidly to the left.
"This year's market [for political titles] seems stronger than ever," said Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal, who in January will publish an embargoed, as-yet untitled exposé of the Bush White House by Pulitzer Prize—winning author and investigative reporter Ron Suskind. "I don't think I've ever seen so many books by the left on the bestseller list. It's rather astounding." Though he agreed that the recent popularity of political works is partially a result of increased political awareness after 9/11 and better-organized promotional efforts by both the right and the left, he saw the current political climate as a more important catalyst. "There seems to be [a strong current of] divisiveness in the country, and louder debate than ever before. The liberal and progressive trend started before 9/11 and was a result of a divisive administration and their policies. Karl Rove does not a kinder and gentler book buyer make."
At Barnes & Noble, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men—the prototype for several of this fall's bestselling liberal titles, and which had little company when it was first published in 2001—has also continued to sell steadily in hardcover, and buyer Sallye Leventhal expects similar velocity for Moore's just released Dude, Where's My Country? (Warner Books). At the same time, small press titles that critique the president, his administration and the Iraq war have been selling with unusual speed. That's a decided shift from the period after 9/11, when Leventhal found "it was extremely difficult to sell much of anything with a leftist point of view in any great numbers."
But it isn't a liberal rout. As in the past several years, "conservative issue titles from [Sean] Hannity, [Ann] Coulter, [Michael] Savage, [Robert] Baer, [Rush] Limbaugh, offerings from Regnery and Prima, and books by libertarian and conservative-leaning authors, such as O'Reilly and Dick Morris, continue to sell exceptionally well," Leventhal said.
While personality-driven hardcovers from large houses have broken out widely, a number of issue-oriented hardcovers and paperback originals from smaller publishers may also garner attention. Public Affairs is featuring two titles by well-positioned authors: Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order (Sept.) by John Newhouse, a former New Yorker writer and senior policy adviser to the Clinton administration, and a look at the Democratic candidates' fledgling pre-primary campaigns, One-Car Caravan (Nov.), by USA Today political reporter Walter Shapiro. Meanwhile, Seven Stories Press has a couple of titles that should strike a chord with frustrated liberals: The Oh Really Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Sept.) by Peter Hart and Gary Webb's The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq (Dec.)
Given the competition this season, every title is facing stringent evaluation from booksellers. Carl Bromley, publisher of Nation Books, pointed out that the profusion of similar titles means that details like timing of publication, format and price mean more than ever. Most of his fall titles, including The Bush Hater's Handbook by Jack Huberman (Jan. 2004) are being published as paperback originals. "You don't want to get squeezed out of the market by the heavy hitters in hardcover," he said.
But paperback originals, like hardcovers, need publicity to succeed. "It's not the stacks in the stores that sell books, it's what people read about them in the media," said Karen Clark, a buyer at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "There's so much out there, it seems at times it might be confusing to customers." In the battle for media and bookseller attention, late arrivals, such as The Book on Bush: Truth and Consequences for Our Forty-Third President by Eric Alterman and Mark Green (Viking, Jan. 26), might be casualties of the deluge. "It's just going out the gate too late," remarked one publishing insider.
And even though liberal authors have decisively grabbed the attention of a large readership, it's unknown how much staying power the books will have compared to their right-leaning opponents. At Borders, for example, conservative titles tend to perform better over time, due to the extensive media networks that conservatives have developed over the past decade. "To give you an idea of which sells better, successful conservative books sell in the tens of thousands," said spokesperson Jenie Carlen, "while liberal books are successful if they sell in the thousands."
As to whether the fall's political titles will begin to encounter the same resistance as last fall's glut of 9/11-inspired books, Square Books' Clark believes that the less painful subject matter will make an important difference. "It's probably an easier choice to buy these books," she said. "You can read about this easier than the other."
The Candidate Speaks!
The impending 2004 election has precipitated a spate of books from Democratic candidates, including new titles by or about Howard Dean, Wesley K. Clark, John Kerry, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. At the same time, Bush's certainty as the Republican nominee has resulted in a number of biographies and defenses of his administration as well as a legion of critical books.
As a genre, candidate books don't have a history of big sales, according to B&N's Leventhal, "unless there is something controversial about the candidate that could generate news attention, and they address it in the book." During the 2000 campaign, only John McCain's Faith of My Fathers found a significant audience, she noted, "but there you had a sort of iconoclastic American war hero story, so it wasn't the typical campaign book."
This season's wide Democratic field may be bad news not only for the Democratic Party but for the candidates' publishers, who are running an even greater than usual risk that they will be stuck with unsold copies if a candidate drops out or is eclipsed early by rivals. Bob Graham's recent exit from the campaign trail will likely reduce interest in Quiet Passion: A Biography of Bob Graham by novelist and journalist S.V. Date. However, Tarcher has rescheduled the book for March 2003, hoping that the Florida senator will be back in the news when vice-presidential speculation heats up.
On the other hand, as the field narrows, there's always the possibility of a reprise of the 1992 election, when curious readers made books about Clinton and Perot into bestsellers. As for this fall's crop of titles, "it remains to be seen how many people feel there is reason to turn to a book as opposed to newspapers and magazines," Leventhal said. "If the book is truly just about the candidate, then the difficulty is convincing a voter that he or she needs to read a whole book about one candidate."
At Borders, Carlen predicted that curiosity about Howard Dean could lead to sales of two paperbacks about him: his own book, Winning Back America (S&S, Nov.), and Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President (Steerforth Press, Nov. 1). She also thought Wesley Clark's Winning Modern Warfare (Public Affairs, Oct.), John Edwards's My Trials (Jan. 2004), John Kerry's A Call to Service (Viking, Oct.) and Douglas Brinkley's bio of Kerry in Vietnam, Tour of Duty (William Morrow, Jan. 2004) would be solid early contenders (see p. 66 for selected reviews).
Rosenthal, who will publish Dean's and John Edwards's books, acknowledged the risk in candidate books, but saw them as a public service. "The track record is mixed— some do better than others," he said. "But it's a way of reaching potential voters by putting a concrete object in their hands. It can also influence voters on the fence. And those committed to candidates end up voting with their pocketbook." He hoped the low price point of the Dean paperback would attract the candidate's younger demographic. "It's in everyone's interest for the book to work," he said, noting that while ubiquitous TV and print exposure can be good publicity for the books, too much can also turn people away.
Tipping the Balance
While some books might get lost in the shuffle, there can also be a crossover effect. At Prince Books and Coffeehouse in Norfolk, Va., near one of the largest military bases in the country, conservative titles are doing well, and liberal titles are doing even better. "I think people are relieved to finally see a response to the Regnery books," said owner and founder Sarah Pishko. Sometimes her customers browse on both sides of the aisle. "One man bought [Ann Coulter's] Slander and [Joe Conason's] Big Lies at the same time," she said. "I gave that man a good hard look. But other people have bought both, too."
Though some readers may cross party lines, the abundance of political titles more obviously reflects the growing tensions throughout the country, putting bookstores in the middle of a widening political and cultural rift. In Houston, Tex., independent bookstore owner Carl Killian says that the increased interest in political books is forcing him to walk a tightrope. Located in the Republican president's Lone Star state, his Brazos Bookstore is well populated with left-leaning titles. Though he tries to balance them with a few Regnery bestsellers, he finds that many conservative readers buy right-wing books online or elsewhere. But since he respects political pluralism and wants customers from all points on the political spectrum to feel comfortable in the store, he tries not to make his own opinions too evident. "We have a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell" policy about politics [with our customers]," he said. "We sort of agree to not disagree and tolerate each other's opinions."