As the Vote Nears: High Season for US Political Books

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Building for years, the clamor on the United States market in political books is reaching a pre-election crescendo this week. NPD sees a bigger year for these titles than any since 2004.

A September 10 shot at the White House. Image – iStockphoto: Serr Novik

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

Books and Ballots
How can we have published so many books about a man who doesn’t read them? Before you can even begin to sort that out, another such title will land. David Rothkopf’s Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump is being released Tuesday (October 27) by Macmillan’s Thomas Dunne Books, exactly one week to the feverishly awaited November 3 United States general election.

Was there ever a better moment for bicycle mobile libraries like the ones spotted sometimes in Europe? Polling-place regulations and COVID-19 precautions allowing, they could pedal around this week’s long queues of America’s early voters, offering pertinent reading options to these resolute patriots as they wait for hours to vote in their record-smashing numbers.

The Rothkopf book arrives with particularly strong endorsements. David Frum (author of HarperCollins’ Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy from May) commends Rothkopf’s “elegantly controlled fury” and “scorching accusation.”

But then, of course, that reminds us of the worthy concern expressed by Sophie de Closets, the CEO of Hachette’s Éditions de Fayard, saying in the Frankfurt Conference CEOs panel Publishing Perspectives moderated that it finally becomes worrisome that consumers are buying their anger, as it were, searching for political books that will ratify their view of the current, volatile moment in so many world publishing markets.

Rothkopf also gets a notably profound cheer from Max Boot, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, who calls Traitor “a tour de force of provocative argumentation. Agree or disagree,” Boot writes, “you cannot ignore the case Rothkopf marshals with such consummate skill.”

Two years ago this month, as we wrote, Boot’s own The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right from WW Norton’s Liveright imprint was one of the first of what has proved to be le deluge, eventually resulting in Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at the Wall Street Journal writing on October 12 of this year, “Extraordinary demand for Trump-related books ahead of the November 3 presidential election has put 2020 on pace to be a record sales year for political books.”

Trachtenberg quotes, as we frequently do, statistics from NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean. She sees 2020 as “the biggest year for political books since we began tracking US book sales in 2004.” McLean has confirmed to us today (October 26) that she’s standing by that forecast.

As we’ve pointed out before, on whatever side of the issues you find yourself, Donald Trump has proved to be the United States’ bookseller-in-chief. While there have been strong entries on the political right, the left-leaning titles seem to have maintained the most traction.

And the more Trump’s attorneys have tried to challenge the freedom to publish enshrined in the American Constitution, the better the books in question seem to sell. One of those, of course, is Mary L. Trump’s  Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man from Simon & Schuster, perhaps the most persistent publisher of political titles under the Trump administration.

Two other recent S&S leaders in the field include Bob Woodward’s Rage, and John Bolton’s controversial The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.

Your Trump Book of Trump Books

As the plot thickens this week—along with the normal tightening of polling ahead of so wrenching an election as this one—you may find that one of the most comprehensive political books of the season is again from Simon & Schuster. Ahead of its October 6 release, Publishing Perspectives was provided an advance look at What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era by Carlos Lozada, nonfiction book critic with the Washington Post.

Lozada writes that when it came to “poring over books on the Trump era,” he has read some 150 of these reads, many of them claiming to diagnose why Trump was elected and what his presidency reveals about the country.

In looking to sort out this new, frequently anxious liturgy published between 2016 and this year, Lozada writes, he’s found: “Dissections of the white working class. Manifestos of political resistance. Works on gender and identity. Histories and memoirs of race and protest. Surveys of populism, authoritarianism, and anger. Investigations of political extremism. Polemics on the future of left and right. Debates and proposals on immigration. Studies on the institution of the presidency and the fate of democracy. And, of course, plenty of books about Trump himself—his values, his family, his businesses, and his White House.”

He sorts these into chapters, including books from “Heartlandia,” the Trump base of voters, as well as books that look “Beyond the Wall” and its immigration controversies, and books based in what he terms “The Chaos Chronicles”–depictions of the Trump administration often by former insiders.

As book-business people (including insightful critics) know to expect, Lozada has found that the books he considers “are illuminating in part because they reflect some of the same blind spots, resentments, and failures of imagination that gave us the Trump presidency itself, and that are likely to outlast it.

“Individually, these books try to show a way forward,” he writes. “Collectively, they reveal how we’re stuck.”

On the Other Side of the Election: Bill Barr as ‘Hatchet Man’

How robust will the American political books market remain after this year? Much of that will depend, of course, on the outcome of that election on November 3.

After all, the arrival on October 6 of Evan Osnos’ Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now from Simon & Schuster didn’t leave nearly the crater in the landscape that many Trump books have done.

Even if a regime change is brought about as a result of the election, however, an administration so potentially pivotal in the American experiment will not end without a lot of unfinished book business to come.

And one such piece ahead from HarperCollins, Publishing Perspectives has learned, is titled Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department.

With a release date of July 6, the book—as yet without cover art—is being written by Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor whose career includes years as an assistant US attorney with the Southern District of New York.

Honig now contributes regular, spirited legal analysis to CNN’s coverage, frequently on issues around the Trump administration and Bill Barr’s performance as Donald Trump’s appointed US Attorney General.

Honig’s editor is Eric Nelson at Broadside, noted for Jim Sciutto’s The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World  and Frum’s Trumpocalypse.

Elie Honig

In answer to our question about his work on the book, Honig says, “The Department of Justice (DoJ) is personal to me. I was trained there, raised there, and I learned to value those core principles and ethics that make DoJ unique. For the past two years, I’ve been revolted by how Barr has corrupted and diminished the department and turned it into a vehicle for his and Trump’s political purposes.

“In this book, I take the lessons I learned in the trenches as a prosecutor—unlike Barr, I’ve actually tried cases—and use them to explain exactly why Barr’s conduct has been so damaging to DoJ and more broadly to our government as a whole.”

Obviously, consumers enjoying the bouncing balls of American political life need have little fear that either outcome of the vote on November 3 will put much white space on genre’s busy release calendar.

Some observers, however, may feel—understandably—differently about this outpouring of content.

“I did not expect,” writes Lozada in What Were We Thinking, “when I became a book critic at the Washington Post in 2015, that I would spend so much mental energy on Donald Trump, much less that something called ‘the Trump era’ would be immediately recognizable shorthand for a nation suffused with conflict, crudeness, and mistrust. But with that fatigue also came a growing hunger for insight and comprehension.

“For me, books have been a way to satisfy it.”

While You Wait in Line To Vote

Several recent releases in the field to consider:

  • Ten Lessons for a Post Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria (WW Norton, released October 6). In The New York Times, Josef Joffe wrote, “With his lively language and to-the-point examples, Zakaria tells the story well, while resisting boilerplate as served up by the left and the right. Nor does he spare his own liberal class, the ‘meritocracy’ of the best educated and better off, which he fingers ever so gently as deepening the divide between urban and rural, elites and ‘deplorables.’”
  • The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III (Penguin Random House/Doubleday, September 29). It’s by The New York Times’ Peter Baker and The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser. Some of the most intriguing comment around this biography has been Baker’s observations on Trumpian Washington, decidedly not the city he ran. As Glasser told Mary Louise Kelly at NPR, “His story helped us, I think, to understand how the modern Republican Party got to this point of a hostile takeover by Donald Trump, someone whose ideology and views are really anathema to the party that Jim Baker built and lived for.”
  • Follow the Money: The Shocking Deep State Connections of the Anti-Trump Cabal (Simon & Schuster, October 6). In case you thought Simon & Schuster was stuck on the left-leaning side of the releases list, Fox News’ Dan Bongino is on the job here with the case for “the other swamp,” if you will, in the US capital, the one the Trump base sees as being arrayed against the president. Before assuming Bongino’s write is niche noshing for the MAGA set, note that it’s No. 9 on the Amazon Charts today in most-sold nonfiction after two weeks.
  • And for more on the impact of Fox News in the Trumpian era, see Brian Stelter’s  Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth (Simon & Schuster/Atria/One Signal, August 25), still standing strong at No. 1 in Media & Communication Industry content at Amazon’s Kindle store for its development of the Fox force as a state-medium collaboration with a White House that CNN’s Stelter describes as both “the Trumpification of Fox” and “the Foxification of America.” It’s about, writes Stelter, “the difference between news and propaganda” and “the difference between state media and the fourth estate.”
  • American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic (Penguin Random House/Crown), October 13. Andrew Cuomo may be tempting fate. Writing about the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic while it’s making ghastly new gains–daily new cases in the United States now are at their highest yet–carries its own risks. But seen as a chapter in the pathogen’s progress, the New York “first epicenter” story is about a man who led the charge with more force and eloquence than most leaders have managed. As Lloyd Green at The Guardian has called a possible job application for an administration position with a Biden-Harris White House.

More from Publishing Perspectives on nonfiction is here, more on political books is here, and more on Donald Trump is here.

And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing 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 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.