Following on from last time, why the printed word? What do candidates stand to gain? It is one thing to look at the physical and emotional salience a physical book creates, but that can’t be measured.
Let’s do some measuring. What do book sales say? The NYT Bestseller list tracks numbers of sales from a nationwide network of booksellers who are—in theory—anonymous. These run from university bookshops to grocery stores, and are weighted by relative sale volume. Sales data is calculated by week for some genres and by month for others, so release dates relative to the week and to the year are important: it can take 10 to 100 times more sales to land on a list in the busy publishing season of November and December—which may explain why so few candidates published in the fall-winter season, and why release dates loosely clustered around the beginning and end of the month.
Enter the horserace: looking back at the NYT Bestseller list only for political hardbacks and only for the years 2014 and 2015, here’s who made the lists.
January of 2014: no candidates have released recently, but Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are having a grand time holding down the fort at places 4 and 9, respectively.
February 2014: still no candidates, but Robert Gates’ retrospective shows up at number 2.
March 2014: Hillary Clinton, is that you?? Wait, no, it’s HRC, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, about Clinton’s tenure in the State Department, coming in at number 10.
April 2014: Still dull. Robert Gates has slipped to number 5. Jimmy Carter’s A Call to Action shows up near the bottom.
May 2014: Still no candidates, but Elizabeth Warren appears with a memoir/polemic at number 7.
June 2014: The candidate drought ends! Ben Carson, having released One Nation on May 20th, appears on the June list at number 4, one behind Elizabeth Warren, who’s risen to number 3. Timothy Geithner also makes an appearance at number 6, bless him.
July 2014: Candidates’ books everywhere! Hillary herself tops the list at number 1 following a June 10th release date, and Carson is only a step behind her at number 2. Interestingly, today in “Books About Candidates,” Blood Feud, by journalist Edward Klein, debuts at number 6 after a June 23rd release date. Blood Feud is about the purported Obama-Clinton family rivalry. Summer beach reading awaits.
August 2014: Blood Feud at 2, Clinton at 4, Carson at 5.
September 2014: Clinton and Carson swap—Carson climbs to 4, and Clinton drops to 7. Blood Feud hangs out at 8.
October 2014: Bill O’Reilly tops the charts after the September 23rd release of Killing Patton. Carson is down at five. Kristin Gillibrand appears at 10.
November 2014: Bill O’Reilly holds at first.
December 2014: Bill O’Reilly still holding the crown. George W. Bush appears at 3 with a retrospective on his father’s presidency, titled 41. Glenn Beck appears with a brand-new follow-up to the book we just saw in January 2014, which is an impressive turnaround time. However, Beck’s book is also marked with a symbol that may be quite meaningful for the NYT Bestseller list: a tiny cross in parentheses. For the NYT Bestseller lists, this indicates that the book may have achieved its status through strategic bulk buys. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
January 2015: the election draws on apace. O’Reilly is 2, but also 9 and 10 with earlier books in the “Killing [whoever]” series (January is apparently quite a slow month). GW Bush is at 3.
February 2015: the last candidate to make an appearance, Mike Huckabee! Debuting January 20th, he was in a prime sales position to make number 7 on February’s list.
March 2015: David Axelrod shows up at 4 with another Obama-era retrospective.
April 2015: O’Reilly at 3, little else to report.
May 2015: Fox News correspondent Dana Perino debuts at number 2, although with the tiny cross. Fareed Zakaria is also here, with In Defense of a Liberal Education at 8.
June 2015: Dana Perino is now at number 1. Clinton Cash, an examination of the Clinton Foundation’s finances and foreign donations by Peter Schweizer, is at 2.
July 2015: Ann Coulter’s topical (tone-wise) Adios, America! appears at the number 1 spot, albeit with a cross. According to the NYT blurb, the book is a denunciation of immigrants and “their liberal supporters.”
And this is as far as the list goes for this year. A moment of silence for Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and—I’m going to make this call preemptively, but he could surprise me—Bobby Jindal, who releases on the 20th of this month. These books never appeared on the monthly lists.
I think there are two interesting conclusions. The first is that the people who appear on this list consistently are themselves objects of great public interest, at least tangentially (like Clinton), are prominent within the media (the Fox News stable), or are to an extent both (Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee). Notably, the media-famous authors with serious book-power are all from the conservative news world. This is fascinating to me, and I would love to hear any thoughts. Is it that the demographic of Fox News is older, and older people are more likely to buy books? Is it that Fox News cultivates shows that are driven by personalities, and personalities who are adept and aggressive at hawking books? It’s certainly curious.
The second is that being on the New York Times bestseller list is worth paying for, even to people with already healthy followings. The little cross means that booksellers have reported bulk buys; bulk buys mean that people—the authors themselves, or often private consulting firms like ResultSource that offer places on bestsller lists for money—are trying to get on these lists. A Melville House article following a similar investigation reported that ResultSource, one of the most prominent of these firms, offered a church $200,000 to get a book to bestseller status. But $200,000 doesn’t just buy you lasting fame—it also places authors in better positions to negotiate future book contracts, and charge higher speaking fees. There have been some rumors about presidential candidates paying for their books to play, although nothing confirmed.
In this presidential cycle, publicity begets publicity, and money equally begets publicity but one must be well-supported already to be able to drop several hundred grand on said publicity maneuver. You write books to get famous but you have to be famous to sell books.