For a snapshot of how politically polarized the country has become, consider the best-seller list in this Sunday’s New York Times. Political books hold the top five spots on the hardcover nonfiction list, but they offer wildly divergent views.
No. 1 on the list is “American Marxism” by the Fox News host Mark Levin, which argues that liberals, including President Biden, are advancing a socialist agenda. Two titles that follow present sharply critical views of the Trump administration: “Here, Right Matters,” a memoir by Alexander Vindman, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who had a role in Trump’s first impeachment; and “I Alone Can Fix It,” an explosive account of Trump’s last year in office by the Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Next come books by the conservative media stars Ben Shapiro and Jesse Watters.
“The same kind of polarization that we’re seeing in the mainstream culture is happening in the book market,” Kristen McLean, an analyst at NPD BookScan, a market research firm, said. “The appetite is there on both sides of the political divide.”
When Biden took office, publishers braced for a slump. The Trump years had been an enormous boon to their industry, with a torrent of best sellers that included bombshell exposés by Bob Woodward and Michael Wolff, and tell-all memoirs from John Bolton and Mary Trump. Political book sales hit a 20-year high, according to NPD BookScan.
As predicted, sales of political books fell in the first seven months of this year. But publishers remain bullish about the genre. While sales have tapered off, the numbers are still well above what they were in 2016, and even 2019. Books by conservative authors are starting to pick up, as is often the case when there’s a Democrat in the White House.
“It’s easier to sell political books when your audience is in the opposition, when it’s feeling embattled and they’re more worked up and angry,” Thomas Spence, president and publisher of the conservative publishing house Regnery, told me. “The first two quarters of 2021 have been great for us.”
The conservative book market also carries risks for big corporate publishers, though. After the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, Simon & Schuster canceled plans to publish a book by Senator Josh Hawley, who tried to overturn the results of the presidential election. (Mr. Hawley, who accused the company of violating the First Amendment, released his book with Regnery.)
Simon & Schuster later announced that it had signed a two-book deal with former Vice President Mike Pence. The decision outraged liberals, including some of Simon & Schuster’s own authors and staff members, who signed a petition calling on the company to stop publishing books by former Trump officials. But the petition failed to sway executives, and news broke soon after that Simon & Schuster had bought a book from Kellyanne Conway.
Those acquisitions didn’t appease conservatives like Tucker Carlson, who attacked Simon & Schuster over its decision to drop Hawley, and accused the company of censorship in his new book, “The Long Slide.” (His claim of censorship is undercut by the fact that his book was published by, well, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)
Then there’s the prospect of a memoir by Trump himself, which would be a guaranteed best seller but would present publishers with factual challenges and inevitable blowback from his critics.
In spite of these tensions, publishers are rushing to sign conservative titles, and conservatives keep rushing to write them. Jared Kushner and William Barr have also sold books. Still, many editors at big houses are cautious about provoking a backlash by working with far-right Republicans, and the wariness may be mutual. This summer, two industry veterans announced they were starting a new conservative publishing company to cater to authors on the right who feel they have been shut out by mainstream publishers.
It’s unclear if publishers will see the kind of blockbusters we saw during the Trump era. But analysts predict that polarizing cultural and social issues will continue to drive book sales on both sides of the political divide.
“Now it feels like the culture wars again,” McLean said. “Everyone took a deep breath and we’re back in it.”
Alexandra Alter covers publishing and the literary world for The Times.
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday.
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Isabella Kwai, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at email@example.com.
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