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March 21, 2014 9:48 AM Conservative Book Bonanaza Over?

By Ed Kilgore

This morning’s Fun Friday read for progressives is McKay Coppins’ Buzzfeed piece on the sudden recent decline in the once-lucrative conservative book publishing industry.

It wasn’t that long ago that at least one right-wing screed, usually a couple, were showing up regularly on bestseller lists. But according to Coppins, a lot of factors have combined to kill that golden goose for conservative gabbers, shouters and pols, including the demise of bookstore chains and clubs and the rise of conservatives-only imprints that limit readership. I love this analogy:

One [literary] agent compared conservative literature to Young Adult fiction, an unsexy niche genre that quietly pulled in respectable profits for years until the big houses took notice, and began entering into bidding wars for promising authors, and flooding the market in a frenzied attempt to find the next Twilight.

But a big chunk of Coppins piece involves the niche within the niche of political publishing involving the obligatory policy-manifesto-plus-hagiography book issued by people thinking about running for president. Having been involved pretty heavily in one such book for a certain Democratic candidate a decade ago, I was pretty fascinated with the numbers for Republican candidate vanity books these days, characterized by low sales, despite quite high advances:

These books have been a ritual in American politics for decades, and in the past, experts said, publishers were relatively clear-eyed about signing such authors; they paid reasonable advances, held their noses as they signed off on the sterilized prose, and then crossed their fingers in hopes that that their guy would become president — an outcome that would ensure massive book sales for years to come. If their author didn’t make it to the White House, they could usually count on relatively minor losses, or even breaking even. It was always a risk, but a calculated one.
But today, as numerous conservative imprints, Christian publishers, and mainstream houses compete to sign a finite number of aspiring Republican presidents, publishers are being forced to pay much larger advances than they’re used to.
For example, Tim Pawlenty, a short-lived presidential candidate in 2012, received an advance of around $340,000 for his 2010 book Courage to Stand. But the book went on to sell only 11,689 copies, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks most, but not all, bookstore sales. What’s more, Pawlenty’s political action committee bought at least 5,000 of those copies itself in a failed attempt to get it on the New York Times best-seller list, according to one person with knowledge of the strategy.
This pattern continues as you scan the works of recent and prospective Republican presidential candidates. According to one knowledgeable source, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received an even larger advance than Pawlenty’s, and Bookscan has his 2013 book Unintimidated selling around 16,000 copies. Sen. Rand Paul’s latest, Government Bullies, has barely cracked 10,000 sold; and despite spending months in the 2012 GOP primaries, Rick Santorum’s book about the founding fathers, American Patriots, sold just 6,538 copies. Perhaps most surprising, Immigration Wars, co-authored by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who consistently polls in the top tier of the Republican 2016 field, sold just 4,599 copies.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s 2012 autobiography, American Son, has sold around 36,000 copies — a figure one conservative agent described as “respectable,” before pointing out that Rubio received an astounding $800,000 advance, according to a financial disclosure. The publisher’s bet, he speculated, was that Rubio was going to be selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate. He wasn’t.

Well, it was nice work if you could get it, but sounds like videos are going to be the big sales items for tomorrow’s conservative presidential candidates wanting to make a buck before they go down the tubes in Iowa.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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