August 21, 2007

You Can Tell A Candidate By His Book

Presidential campaigns have developed a side industry in book publishing. Most of the candidates in this race have written and published books or have one under contract. With few exceptions, however, the books tend to be as popular as the candidates -- which means they should focus on their current jobs in both cases:

The top-tier presidential candidates have some personal finance numbers in common — six- or seven-figure book deals.

Writing a book has become a prerequisite to running for president — a means to explain views in depth, to set the record straight and to add a bit of gravitas. But while nearly all the candidates put pen to paper, it is mainly those ranked high in the polls who make any real money out of it. ...

Still, big book profits are not a reality for many White House hopefuls, even if they're well-known.

"I think it's a losing proposition for most candidates in that they're not looking at those books for instant wealth," said publisher Jonathan Karp of Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group that released McCain's "Hard Call" this month. "Because most of them are not natural writers or natural storytellers. Most of them fall back on boilerplate and cliche."

That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Most of them fall back on boilerplate and cliché on the campaign trail, too. All that means is that they're consistently dull and unimaginative.

The most successful authors are, not surprisingly, the most effective communicators on the stump. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani make the most money in publishing. John McCain does consistently well, but McCain's latest entry isn't really a campaign book or biography. Barack Obama managed to succeed with boilerplate and cliché in The Audacity of Hope, a book so dull that I had to stop listening to the audio CD. Mike Huckabee had a lot of success with his diet book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, which avoided politics in favor of personal health control.

Flops are much more plentiful, and just as predictable. John Kerry, who could make a joke sound like a lecture, only managed $89,000 in book royalties for A Call To Service despite his Democratic nomination to the presidency, and half of that probably came from fact-checkers. Mitt Romney's Turnaround, published in 2004, only sold 11,000 copies. Bill Richardson's memoirs sold a like amount, while Tom Tancredo's blast at immigration policy, In Mortal Danger, sold less than either, despite the passionate movement he leads. Dennis Kucinich sold even less than that with A Prayer for America, published about the same time as Kerry's book.

The book deals keep coming, however, and maybe that's a good thing. Instead of using Gallup or Rasmussen, we can start using BookScan to get an idea of a candidate's popularity. Perhaps we can even require Presidential candidates to write books explaining themselves and their aims before the primary season begins -- giving voters a chance to see whether the candidates actually have anything to say beyond the boilerplate and the clichés.


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Comments (12)

Posted by NoDonkey | August 21, 2007 9:16 AM

If Bill Clinton ever wrote a book about his life that told us what really happened, it might be one of the most interesting autobiographies ever.

But that's the problem with books written by aspiring politicians - they are so scrubbed and sanitized in order to not offend this or that grievance group/constitutency, that they cannot possibly be interesting.

Posted by filistro | August 21, 2007 9:31 AM

An author gets no royalties at all until he/she first earns out the advance. Most books by politicians are in essence an "outright sale of rights" in that all parties understand the author is never going to sell enough copies to get more than the initial advance.

Publishers don't make much on these books but are willing to buy them regardless because there's a niche market, they make the house look good and they are well-subsidized by the less weighty but much more popular books in the publisher's catalogue.

If John Kerry actually earned $89,000 in royalties (I wasn't aware of this) then his book sold very well indeed. He moved enough units to earn out his entire advance, then made a substantial number of additional sales.

Posted by Tim | August 21, 2007 12:11 PM

The reason Tancredo's book didn't sell as well as the other candidates is because the major bookstores didn't carry it. Barnes & Nobles, for example, didn't offer it. Therefore, don't misinterpret lower book sales as a sign of lower public support.

Posted by Cannon | August 21, 2007 1:04 PM

Unless Governor Mitt Romney's book sold for less than $8.00 per copy he generated more revenue than Senator and Dem presidential nominee John Kerry.

Posted by Edward Cropper | August 21, 2007 1:08 PM

Allow me to offer a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 12:12 " of making many books there is no end, and much baloney and self aggrandizement wearies most rational voters."

Posted by Drew | August 21, 2007 2:24 PM

All of these politicians are trying to strike the magic of John Kennedy's "Profiles In Courage", which was actually pretty good (he had excellent ghost-writers). As their performance in the sales numbers indicate, they, like Dan Quayle, are no Jack Kennedy.

Posted by TBinSTL [TypeKey Profile Page] | August 21, 2007 4:33 PM

Considering Fred Thompson's book is going for $130 a copy USED online(it's out of print), I think that says something.... Not sure what but it says something.

Posted by filistro | August 21, 2007 5:55 PM

Cannon... you are confusing unit sales, net revenues and royalties.

Royalties are a percentage of net revenues,which are determined by unit sales and cover price.

Posted by Bennett | August 21, 2007 7:23 PM

I read a lot but am pleased to say that the only book "written" by any career politician I think I've ever read is McCain's "Faith of My Fathers". And I read that more for the early part of his story, his Navy career and time in captivity.

We get way more of these guys and gals than, frankly, I think anyone of us really want, on TV, radio, in the newspapers and magazines. Other than hardcore political junkies, I doubt many people want to spend precious free time reading whatever tripe they (or their ghost writers) have scribbled down in a book. Most of them don't even have that interesting of a personal story to tell (other than McCain as I've already noted).

Posted by Coriolan | August 21, 2007 9:43 PM

Some 19th Century Presidents had rather impressive literary support in their campaign biographies: Franklin Pierce had his 1852 campaign bio penned by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Rutherford Hayes' 1876 bio was written by William Dean Howells, and Benjamin Harrison called upon his old friend Lew Wallace - world-famous after 1881 as the author of Ben Hur - to write his 1888 bio (there was a joke that Wallace did such as a great job with Ben Hur that he was asked to write "Ben Him").

Posted by Stephen | August 22, 2007 5:30 AM

All I know is that there's twenty copies of "Like No Other Time" at the local Save-A-Lot that no one is willing to shell out a dollar for.

(It's by Tom Daschle)

Posted by davod | August 22, 2007 9:06 AM

What a waste of time. Hillary has, at best, mediocre communications skills. Her presence in the Democratic line up is a result of a good communications team and a compliant media.

As for using publications sales as a basis for establishing popularity - It seems that some time ago there were questions raised about:

a. whether extremely high book advances were just hidden campaign payments - there is a democratic Congressman from (I think he is from Pennsylvania) who received a very large advance payment before the last elections, and

b. Books being purchased en masse by people and organizations with a political interest in the author. I recall speaker's Wright an Gingrich were acused of being recipients of this largess from political supporters (for all we know Barack Obama's political ambition and his supporters were smart enough to purchase massive quantities of his earlier books just to get him noticed).

So let us not give the sale of books too large a role in the prediction of political winners and losers.

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