Last summer, when Random House began publishing conservative books under the Crown Forum logo and Penguin announced its nascent Sentinel imprint, the unanswered question was whether right-wing boutiques at the major New York publishers could replicate the success of smaller, more ideologically committed houses. And if they did, would their arrival be a knock-out blow to independents like Regnery, which had launched a number of long-running bestsellers when conservative publishing was more of a niche market?

Regnery couldn't have produced better evidence of its staying power than its current bestseller, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi. On July 28, when the Drudge Report referred to the book's controversial claim that John Kerry lied to get his war medals, the embargoed title jumped to #1 on After the authors' political group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, began running anti-Kerry television ads in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin during the first week of August, the subsequent media explosion pushed the August 1o release onto PW's nonfiction hardcover bestseller list, where it debuted at #5 last week, before rising to #1 this week.

Such successful opportunistic publishing isn't a fluke for the Washington, D.C., house. In the 13 months since Crown Forum and Sentinel lured away two of Regnery's editors and several of its bestselling authors, the house has placed three books on PW's hardcover bestseller list, five titles in the top 15 positions on the New York Times hardcover list, and five more hardcovers on the Times's extended list. Publisher Marji Ross maintained that, despite competition from bigger houses, Regnery continues to draw several advantages from its size. "We only do one type of book, and we know the market better than anyone else," she said. The house also has more latitude to take a chance on emerging authors and turn books around quickly than publishers with hundreds of titles in the pipeline. For example, Ross invited O'Neill to write Unfit for Command for Regnery after hearing him and other veterans speak in May. "At the time, we thought, if anything, we had missed an opportunity, because we didn't have a book out already," she said.

Ross said she hasn't been losing sleep over Crown Forum and Sentinel, though she called them a "mixed blessing." On one hand, the larger publishers have brought more media attention to conservative books and helped expand the space devoted to the category in stores, she said. On the other hand, they've increased the competition for the biggest authors, though so far Ross hasn't seen an impact on the house's overall sales. "I expected to be outbid by some of the bigger publishers on books that we really thought would be good for Regnery," she said. "But so far, we've been happy to be outbid because the price went too high or we just passed on the books."

Humble Beginnings

In its first year, Crown Forum hasn't replicated Regnery's success, other than with former Regnery author Ann Coulter, whose Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (Aug. 2003) remained on PW's hardcover list for 12 weeks last fall. Still, the imprint has made a respectable bestseller showing. Two of its other launch titles hit the New York Times hardcover extended list last year, and one of its spring hardcovers, The French Betrayal of America by Kenneth Timmerman, was on the Times extended list for two weeks in April.

Though the imprint last summer faced a "mixed reception" from retailers, the situation has gradually improved. "In our industry, booksellers appreciate anything that brings customers to the stores and books to the cash register," publisher Steve Ross explained. "Customers continued coming into stores and asking for our titles, which brought bookseller perceptions to more heartening place."

As for Sentinel, it's a bit soon to draw conclusions, though early signs have been positive. The imprint launched on July 22 with Ronald Reagan in Private, a memoir by the late president's former executive assistant that was rushed to market and has sold fewer than 4,000 copies so far, according to Nielsen Bookscan. However, Sentinel's biggest fall title, A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush (Aug.) by Ronald Kessler, debuted at #12 on PW's bestseller list on August 23.

For his part, publisher Adrian Zackheim has been satisfied with the retail response to his books. "Current events is the number-one category in bookstores, so it's no surprise we've had wonderful distribution in trade," he said. His publicity strategy involves outside PR firms that specialize in conservative media, in addition to in-house efforts. Add to that Penguin's deep pockets, and Sentinel has a clear advantage, he contended. "We can invest in very visible authors in ways that places like Regnery can't."

Size Doesn't Matter

If anything, the bestseller lists point to a strong market that can support multiple players. Though HarperCollins's ReganBooks imprint is not solely dedicated to conservative books, it has become one of the category's most dominant players, placing four conservative books on PW's list, six among the Times's top 15, and six more on the Times's extended list. And in the same period, Broadway Books had one of the longest-running conservative bestsellers with Bill O'Reilly's Who's Looking Out for You? (Sept. 2003), which remained on PW's list for 15 weeks.

Smaller houses based outside New York have also found success. WND, an imprint that until recently was a co-venture of the religious publisher Thomas Nelson and the Web site, placed Michael Savage's The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith and Military (Jan.) on the PW bestseller list for four weeks, and two other titles on the Times's extended list for a week or two. In addition, the start-up Stroud & Hall had its first PW bestseller with A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat (Oct. 2003), by Georgia senator Zell Miller, the keynote speaker at this week's Republican convention.

Looking ahead to its third year in operation, WND Books plans to balance its current-events titles with more political histories and biographies. "We're trying to strategically diversify so we're not a one-trick pony," said publisher David Dunham. Like Zackheim, he sees an advantage being a small imprint at a large publisher, which permits WND to offer its authors the attention of a small house while relying on the resources of Thomas Nelson. "If something's smoking, we could put out a million-dollar advance. We've done a number of those," said Durham, adding that he recently signed up a new book by radio talk show host Michael Savage for an advance in the "high six figures."

"Quite a few publishers have awakened to the reality that, in addition to there being important conservative voices, there is also a very large market," said Brad Miner, executive editor of BookSpan's American Compass conservative book club. Launched last January, American Compass's membership has grown from 5,000 to more than 20,000 after a single recruitment campaign. While that's not yet enough to challenge the dominance of the 75,000-member Conservative Book Club owned by Regnery's parent company, Eagle Publishing, it still represents a healthy level of growth. Already, the club leads the 30-odd BookSpan clubs in the level of sales per catalogue.

Miner agrees that the larger publishers have not squeezed anyone out. "So far as I can tell, large and small publishers are still getting authors and good books," he said. "Regnery puts out the best bestselling conservative books and they're still the most important conservative publisher—until someone replaces them."

The Right Strikes Back

There's been a winnowing of partisan conservative bestsellers since March, largely due to the unexpected success of a handful of embargoed titles by authors with access to senior members of the Bush administration who have critiqued its inner workings. Those books—which include Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty (S&S, Jan.), Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies (Free Press, Mar.) and Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack (S&S, Apr.)—arguably captured conservative readers as well as liberal ones. Though high-visibility conservative personalities continued to move books during the spring—such as Sean Hannity, whose Deliver Us from Evil (ReganBooks, Feb.) held the #1 position on the Times list for five weeks—authors without marquee names were squeezed out.

But going into the Republican convention this week, right-wing books—from O'Neill's Unfit for Command to Tommy Franks's American Soldier (ReganBooks, Aug.) and Pat Buchanan's Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (St. Martin's/Dunne, Aug.)—have been making a comeback. "There hasn't been quite as strong an audience for conservative books this year as for liberal books," said Crown's Ross, who anticipates reaching the top of the bestseller list in October with Ann Coulter's How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter. "But I don't think it's topped out yet. I don't think the market for conservative books is going to go away."

Dreher writes about books for the Toronto Globe and Mail and Salon.

*since July 2003
Regan Books 4 16
Regnery 3 8
Crown Forum 1 12
WND Books 1 4
Sentinel 1 2