Politics and Publishing

Roy Robins

Campaigning between the covers

More and more politicians are publishing books – but why? And does anyone read them? Amie Parnes investigates, in an article for the Politico. According to one literary agent quoted by Parnes, ‘The thing about publishing is that books can confer and bestow a certain gravitas and seriousness that nothing else can’. But many of these books – including some by high-profile politicians – fail to find a readership.

Of course there are exceptions. Barack Obama has made a fortune from his two books, Dreams from my Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006). On September 9, not long after the Democratic convention in Denver, where Obama will officially become that party’s presidential nominee, Random House’s Crown Publishing will launch a third book by Obama, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise.

Sales of the autobiographies of Bill and Hillary Clinton more than earned back the couples’ enormous advances. (Bill Clinton received a record-breaking $15 million from Random House, while Hillary settled for a still stunning $8 million from Simon & Schuster). Employing the Washington lawyer, Robert Barnett, who brokered book deals for Bill Clinton and Obama, Tony Blair negotiated a £5 million advance (tellingly, all three politicians signed with Random House). The Blair book, which is expected next year and will almost certainly be buoyed by massive publicity, will likely recoup the cost of its advance.

For every politician who finds crossover appeal as a literary superstar, there are dozens whose books move swiftly from launch party to sales bin. An ego can be an expensive thing to nurse, especially if the expense is passed on to someone else. Bill Clinton’s 2007 book about charity, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, did not equal the success of his autobiography, perhaps because readers were not in a giving mood. The ongoing recession is adversely affecting book sales. It’s been a difficult period for the publishing industry, uncertain of how to adapt to new technology and the internet. The largest publishing houses are increasingly obstructed by an imbalanced relationship with their corporate parents, while the small presses are restricted by their smallness. According to the agent quoted in the Politico piece, ‘We’re on a slow cycle in the publishing world. Things happen, careers blow up. That’s the tricky part of the business. You have to think about not what’s hot now but what’s hot two years from now.’

Partisan publishing: lying can be lucrative

Debuting at number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list this Sunday will be The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality by conservative writer Jerome R. Corsi. According to an article by Jim Rutenberg and Julie Bosman in the New York Times,

The book is being pushed along by a large volume of bulk sales, intense voter interest in Mr. Obama and a broad marketing campaign that has already included one hundred author interviews with talk radio hosts across the country… The publisher is Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster whose chief editor is Mary Matalin, the former Republican operative turned publisher-pundit… Threshold says it has undertaken an extensive printing effort for anticipated demand, with 475,000 copies of The Obama Nation produced so far.

Many of the claims in The Obama Nation – including allegations that Obama lied about when he stopped using cocaine and marijuana, and charges about his relationship with Islam and his participation in the congregation of Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ – are factually inaccurate and have been disproved. But honesty, accuracy and transparency are besides the point, because, as Corsi told the New York Times, ‘The goal is to defeat Obama. I don’t want Obama to be in office’. This is an honest sentiment that has produced a great deal of dishonest ones.

Corsi’s last book, 2004’s Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (which, like The Obama Nation, had a place on the New York Times bestseller list), questioned the Vietnam service record of then-Democratic nominee John Kerry, and considerably damaged Kerry’s campaign. The claims in that book were refuted, although the phrase ‘to swiftboat’ (referring to a Republican smear campaign) has entered the political vocabulary.

How does Obama confront these false charges without drawing attention to them and thus lending them a kind of credibility? Kerry’s 2004 strategy was to ignore the charges altogether, until the attacks on his integrity intensified. Some say that Kerry waited too long to respond; others argue that he did not respond aggressively enough. Tad Devine, who served as Kerry’s chief strategist, says that the Obama campaign’s best response is to ‘authoritatively debunk every single assertion, probably in writing’.

As the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow notes,

Ever since Obama introduced himself at the 2004 Democratic convention as the ‘unlikely’ son of a Kenyan goat herder and a white woman from Kansas, he forever married his background to his political future. Corsi and other conservative authors hope that by diminishing one, they can destroy the other…The anti-Obama narratives are the creation of conservative authors, pushed by conservative book clubs that buy in bulk to drive up sales and publicized by right-wing bloggers.

Slate’s Timothy Noah argues that the ‘big publishing houses have started conservative imprints, at arms’ length and with noses held, because they recognize them to be a gold mine… But part of the deal, clearly, is that conservative imprints aren’t required to adhere to the same standards of truth as the grown-up divisions’.

The Obama Nation is not the first anti-Obama book, nor will it be the last. In fairness, the last eight years have produced enough Bush-bashing books to fill a library. Writers are entitled to their opinions and to their outrage, of course, but, by the same token, readers are owed a degree of honesty. This is not to say that all conservative books about Obama are negative – Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama, a companion to his 2003 bestseller, The Faith of George W. Bush, is a positive portrait of Obama and his faith.

Political book news in brief

In a June Politico piece, Mike Allen reported on the political journalists who have signed book contracts to write about the 2008 election. These include John Heilemann (of New York magazine) and Mark Halperin (of Time), who will join forces to tell ‘the inside story of the presidential election’ for HarperCollins.

In a piece published on the website of the South African weekly newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, Nosimlo Ndlovu writes that,

Books about the state of the nation and local political figures are not just winning prizes and critical acclaim, they are also the surprise new bestsellers… In a market where selling 5,000 or 6,000 copies of local non-fiction books is considered reasonable and anything more than 10,000 is ‘platinum’, several local authors have set sales highs in the last three years. They include Mark Gevisser, whose biography Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred last week won the Alan Paton Prize; Andrew Feinstein, who wrote After The Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC and William Gumede, who led the presidential biographer pack with the 2005 publication of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. These books have all sold between 20,000 and 30,000 copies.


Erin McMillan | Interview
Simon Gray