After two years in office Donald Trump has finally taught book publishers what cable news and the newsprint industry already knew: political journalism is great business and such a huge moneymaker that it may be eating into other publishing genres.
More than a dozen books about Trump’s Washington are due, many from well-known writers paid advances in the region of a million dollars. Subsets include five about or involving the supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh and, last week in the US, Kushner, Inc., a study of Jared and Ivanka Kushner by the Anglo-US writer Vicky Ward.
Others on the way include The Enemy of the People, coming on 11 June from CNN’s correspondent and Trump bete noire Jim Acosta; American Carnage, about the recent evolution of the Republican party; and Border Wars, about Trump’s ability to manipulate fear of outsiders to promote his agenda. They will stand alongside Matriarch, about Barbara Bush and Insurgency, about how Steve Bannon and other rightwing media figures paved the way for Trump.
Also coming is Audience of One by the New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik, who writes about the Trump presidency as perhaps it should have been covered from the outset – “as a TV star existing in the genre of entertainment, instead of as a conventional political candidate”, says the New York literary agent Chris Calhoun.
Calhoun is not alone in reaching that point of view. “News is transcending its own genre and becoming popular culture, thanks in part to the Trump presidency,” the Fox consultant Jason Klarman told Variety last week.
The early pacesetters in publishing’s political canon have been strong, with Michelle Obama’s Becoming, still No 1 on the New York Times nonfiction list after 17 weeks, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (at 5 million copies sold), Bob Woodward’s Fear and James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty.
But Calhoun says publishers were initially reluctant to accept political book proposals. “They didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t know if he was going to be impeached, who was going to be in his cabinet. Given the lag time publishers are forced to deal with, they were afraid to take a shot at it.”
No longer. Book sales in the political category rose 32% in 2018, accounting for 3.8% of all print nonfiction. Over the same time period, fiction dropped 4%, suggesting to some analysts the two trends could be linked.
The US book retailer Barnes & Noble compared the sales in states according to the electoral college vote in the 2016. It found that in 32 states, sales of pro-Trump books were high but in the other 18 mostly coastal and therefore Democratic-leaning states, anti-Trump books were doing well. But the red state/blue state split is not uniform.
Calhoun singles out The Point of It All by the late Washington Post columnist and conservative critic Charles Krauthammer that’s current at No 10 on the New York Times bestseller list after 11 weeks.
“These quick Trump books – positive and negative – come and go, but Krauthammer, whatever you think of his politics, is a serious intellectual and his books have stayed atop the list for months and I find that very encouraging. I just a wish a serious leftwing pundit could do the same,” says Calhoun.
But not all political books have found an audience – especially those in the second wave that came from within the administration. Neither Anthony Scaramucci’s The Blue-Collar President, Corey Lewandowski’s Trump’s Enemies nor Sean Spicer’s The Briefing have sold well – though perhaps notably all took pro-Trump stances.
In Kushner, Inc., Vicky Ward describes the couple as “the self-styled Prince and Princess of America”. She believes publishers are more interested in political books after the failure of the second wave now everyone can see that the White House is being run as a family business.
“It’s not that much different from Monopoly, basically,” she said.
The Kushners, she says, thought they could simply transpose their dynastic, privileged life of New York real estate to the White House. Instead they found themselves at war, first with Steve Bannon and later with his successors, including John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff.
“Trump operates in plain sight, but they are anything but transparent. These people are not who they seem to be, and they come from a background where rules are for other people. You just have to look at the body count in the White House – all caused by Jared and Ivanka, basically,” Ward said.
Trump aside, there is further reason for optimism in the political publishing genre, with publishers noting that sales of classics are also up (George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism sold more than 20,000 copies, slightly ahead of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto which came in 15th, selling almost 16,000 copies).