On Both Sides of the Political Divide, Books Are Soaring

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As the US Senate opens the trial of the impeached Donald Trump, American political books rise on the updraft of media coverage.

Political books are popular as the impeachment trial of Donald Trump gets underway

Late nights are expected at the US Capitol, where impeachment trial rules have initially called for 12-hour days in the Senate. Image – iStockphoto: Kan Ailyou

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Charles: Political Books as Badges
On a particularly political day in the United States (January 21), the market’s weekly Tuesday book-release activity is especially indicative of what the Washington Post’s Ron Charles described last month as a trend in nonfiction consumerism. During the last decade, he wrote, political books have become “political badges.”

During the Obama administration, Charles wrote, “conservative writers Edward Klein, Dinesh D’Souza, David Limbaugh, and others served up one denunciation after another. By the time Donald Trump came into office, that marketplace, supported by cable newstainment, was running hot on the left and the right.

“Trump’s perceived glories or evils drove sales of exposés, hagiographies and memoirs, almost all designed to confirm rather than inform or challenge one’s fealty.”

As the Senate prepares to convene for its first session today in the Trump impeachment trial, Trump continues to serve as bookseller-in-chief for many such releases—even when he’d like not to be. Today’s releases have formed a political trifecta, with political books at Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in Amazon’s new releases. One is from the left, two from the right.

And here’s how the president greeted on Monday (January 20) Penguin Press’ release today of A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig:

Those two “stone cold losers,” Rucker and Leonnig, in fact today on have the No. 1 new release on Amazon.com. And that ranking caps all new releases, updated hourly, not just politically related content.

In all three formats of A Very Stable Genius released today—hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook (narrated by the authors and by Hillary Huber, from Penguin Audio)—the title holds the top spot in Politics & Government, Politics & Current Events, and (to the core question of today’s opening impeachment trial proceedings) Political Corruption & Misconduct.

The interest in Rucker and Leonnig’s new book, of course, has been fueled by the Post’s release of an excerpt that describes Trump’s dressing down of the American military leadership at the Pentagon. Trump, in this 2017 incident, is quoted by Leonnig and Rucker as saying to the joint chiefs, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and others, “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore … I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”

A point being made in early coverage of the book is that Leonnig and Rucker have written it as a straight-ahead reportorial effort, without the snark of a kiss-and-tell from inside the administration or the society-circuit tone of a Michael Woolf.

Schweizer: ‘A Rogue;’s Gallery’

Needless to say, it doesn’t take a rare US presidential impeachment to push political nonfiction forward. As we reported Thursday (January 16), the UK’s publishers’ and booksellers’ associations have had their own events to contend with, having held back their shortlist announcement for the annual Parliamentary Book Awards so that the country’s general election of December could play through.

But one of the key takeaways in the American market is the strength of interest on both sides of the political spectrum. If you look at spot No. 2 today, you can tell that there’s a kind of commercial egalitarianism in sway: Peter Schweizer’s Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite, released by HarperCollins.

Schweizer is the author of Harper’s 2015 Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, and in his new work, a lot of ink goes heavily to Democratic primary candidates Joe Biden, Cory Booker (now out of the race), Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar.

The New York Post’s excerpt from the book says, in part, “With the election of his father as vice-president, Hunter Biden launched businesses fused to his father’s power that led him to lucrative deals with a rogue’s gallery of governments and oligarchs around the world.

“Sometimes he would hitch a prominent ride with his father aboard Air Force Two to visit a country where he was courting business. Other times, the deals would be done more discreetly. Always they involved foreign entities that appeared to be seeking something from his father.”

And in this case, too, Amazon’s data shows the book lining up its own No. 1 positions in sales on the platform, in this case in Political Commentary & Opinion, Political Science, and United States Local Government.

Caldwell: ‘Elite Power’

At No. 3 on today’s overall top-selling new releases? Politics again, and it’s the conservative camp’s second salvo: Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties is out today from Simon & Schuster, with its argument that well-intended mid-century reforms have led many Americans into the straits of the alienation and denigration that has made them willing to vote a Trump into office.

In his treatment of the issue, Caldwell—who contributes opinion pieces to The New York Times and was a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and columnist for the Financial Times—writes, “The reforms of the ’60s, even the ones Americans loved best and came to draw part of their national identity from, came with costs that proved staggeringly high—in money, freedom, rights, and social stability.

“These costs were spread most unevenly among social classes and generations. Many Americans were left worse off by the changes. Economic inequality reached levels not seen since the age of the 19th-century monopolists.

“The scope for action conferred on society’s leaders allowed elite power to multiply steadily and, we now see, dangerously, sweeping aside not just obstacles but also dissent.”

Wittes: ‘A Flood of Scandalous Material’
Political books discussion with Fred Hiatt, Susan Hennessey, and Benjamin Wittes

In a live discussion of their newly released book today (January 21), Fred Hiatt, left, talks with ‘Unmaking the Presidency’ authors Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, senior fellows at Brookings. Image: Brookings Institute

One of the most interesting dynamics in the market vitality of political books in the current climate is referenced by the author Isabel Allende. In a First Draft interview excerpt at Literary Hub, Allende puts her finger on an anomaly of the age: “Literature can maybe change minds, but few people read,” she says.

“Few people allow themselves to be influenced or changed by books. It takes a book sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, to have an effect, while journalism is very immediate and very powerful. You have minutes of something on TV, and you can create much more impact than a book can do in many, many years.”

And that’s resonant in another signal release today in which astute analysis is being buoyed prominently into marketplace view by media visibility.

Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes from Macmillan / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, takes as its study the remarkable panoply of changes in how Donald Trump handles—or manhandles—the Oval Office, reshaping the role to a set of impulses that seem far from the civic-virtue approach of so many who have held the post in the past.

In a sense, Wittes and Hennessey are saying, the United States has depended on a kind of honor system, expecting its presidents to respect and appreciate and aspire to the best goals described by the office of the presidency in its domestic and international duties. Without regard for such tradition, Trump appears to be making what may be permanent changes to the character and potentials of the office.

As Wittes has said in his and Hennessey’s Brookings Institute discussion of the book in Washington, “We don’t really know the scope of the problem because we’re in such a flood of scandalous material. … What am I missing now that’s super-salient? We don’t know what’s important all the time,” under the deluge of unprecedented incidents and trashed expectations that defines the current administration.

He and Hennessey are both senior fellows at Brookings. She’s also the executive editor and he’s the editor-in-chief of Lawfare. Hennessey is a former National Security Agency attorney.

And as Hennessey has said in her comments today about the Ukraine affair that’s at the heart of the impeachment of Trump and the trial of that impeachment starting today, “One of the things that continues to astonish me is how close” Trump and his aides “came to getting away with it. But for one person, willing to go through the system, not leaking to the press but being a whistleblower in the true legal sense of the term, we’d never have been able to untangle what came first or what the motivation was.”

“It takes a book sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, to have an effect, while journalism is very immediate and very powerful.”Isabel Allende, First Draft, Literary Hub

In that mode—and to Allende’s point—but for one thing in the current nonfiction trend lines, it can be assumed that Hennessey and Wittes book might not be doing as well as it is on release today, coming in at single digits in Amazon’s sales, including in its audio rendition from Macmillan Audio narrated by the authors. And that singular factor is Hennessey’s arresting work as an expert commentator in daily news coverage.

She’s a frequent contributor to the nonstop political conversation on CNN. A mainstay of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room and frequently on the panels of other flagship shows, her animated, rapidly delivered points sail across the glass tables of the network nightly and, like Wittes, she has a knack for clarity without sacrificing the erudition of her criticisms.

If Allende is right that books normally don’t have the change-power that journalism does, the intensity of Hennessey’s delivery may be demonstrating what happens in the contemporary market when books are buoyed on a journalistic tide, much like the effect of Ruckers’ and Leonnig’s highly regarded work at the Post, where the display of an explosive excerpt has helped boost their success to the top of this week’s new releases.

More from Publishing Perspectives on political books is here and more on nonfiction is here. More on the US book market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.