As I write this, Karl Rove's much-discussed memoir about his years with the Bushies has yet to find a publisher. Oh, Rove and his representative, D.C. attorney Robert Barnett, have been making the rounds all right—but so far, no deal. Although we don't know much about the book, the less we know, the more we buzz. How much will Rove get? Which house will offer which bells and whistles, in terms of publicity and perks? How will he choose among his several suitors?
But here's my question: does any of this matter?
It's axiomatic these days that there's a relationship between political office and the book business. Fired or fed up? Don't get mad (or better, do get mad, it makes better copy), but for God's sake, do get even, in print. And while you're at it, also get Barnett. (The Williams & Connelly attorney has represented everyone from the Clintons to Lynne Cheney.) Publishers have not exactly been reticent about signing up these books; the major nonfiction editors at the big houses routinely line up for the “beauty contests” that are more about selling the publisher to the author than vice versa. After much parading, but, thankfully, no swimsuit competition, the crowned “winner” gets to pony up seven figures.
It's all just so... publishing, right down to the griping, off the record and after the fact, that these books are rarely worth the trouble. Sure, both Clinton memoirs came at least close to earning out for their houses (Knopf and S&S), but in neither case was it easy; at least for the very international Clintons, U.S. publishers could recoup in foreign sales. In most cases, there's very little foreign or backlist potential, and outside of a strong opening week or three—and, if you're lucky, a boost from a 60 Minutes interview—most of these books disappear quickly. Remember ex-CIA director George Tenet? His At the Center of the Storm cost HarperCollins plenty, in cash and editing energy, and has sold just over 100,000 copies since its April publication, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Some books by political exiles do better, of course—Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies sold 400,000 in hardcover, according to BookScan—but the problem is, you can't predict how much name recognition these “authors” will have six months to a year after they've been in the news. And while I'd like to think that what's in the book makes a difference to readers—Tenet made some explosive comments, after all, even if they were often self-serving—all too often those revelations are scooped in newspapers or in those 60 Minutes interviews.
Face it: How much is Karl Rove really going to say that will surprise us? (Likewise, how much is Edward Kennedy likely to reveal in the project he recently sold for millions to Twelve, though the name recognition here is obviously off the charts?) Is Rove really going to own up to the role he played in creating the mess that has become the Bush White House?
Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt it. This book is more likely just another piece of master publicity by a guy who has admitted a fascination with Machiavelli's The Prince.
Now, there's a book that has been worth millions to its publisher, and, sources tell me, Bob Barnett had nothing to do with it.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson