The Decline of Conservative Publishing

As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let's just say "modest" and leave it at that, I've always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You'd go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention.

It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray, they decided to get into the act with right-leaning imprints of their own. But now, "Many of the same conservatives who cheered this strategy at the start now complain that it has isolated their movement's writers from the mainstream marketplace of ideas, wreaked havoc on the economics of the industry, and diminished the overall quality of the work."

I find that last part puzzling; it isn't as though the anti-Clinton screeds of the 1990s were carefully researched and written with style, but that didn't stop them from selling well. It seems as though this is mostly a reflection of the problems in the publishing industry as a whole. But one sub-niche that is definitely suffering is the pre-presidential-campaign book. Bizarrely, publishers still compete fervently to sign every last senator running a quixotic presidential campaign, on the off-chance that he might become president and then his book would sell spectacularly. But all but one of the candidates fails, and then the publishers have wasted their money. Just look at the pathetic sales some of these guys have generated:

For example, Tim Pawlenty, a short-lived presidential candidate in 2012, received an advance of around $340,000 for his 2010 book Courage to Stand. But the book went on to sell only 11,689 copies, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks most, but not all, bookstore sales. What's more, Pawlenty's political action committee bought at least 5,000 of those copies itself in a failed attempt to get it on the New York Times best-seller list, according to one person with knowledge of the strategy.

This pattern continues as you scan the works of recent and prospective Republican presidential candidates. According to one knowledgeable source, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received an even larger advance than Pawlenty's, and Bookscan has his 2013 book Unintimidated selling around 16,000 copies. Sen. Rand Paul's latest, Government Bullies, has barely cracked 10,000 sold; and despite spending months in the 2012 GOP primaries, Rick Santorum's book about the founding fathers, American Patriots, sold just 6,538 copies. Perhaps most surprising, Immigration Wars, co-authored by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who consistently polls in the top tier of the Republican 2016 field, sold just 4,599 copies.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio's 2012 autobiography, American Son, has sold around 36,000 copies — a figure one conservative agent described as "respectable," before pointing out that Rubio received an astounding $800,000 advance, according to a financial disclosure. The publisher's bet, he speculated, was that Rubio was going to be selected as Mitt Romney's running mate. He wasn't.

Frankly, I have trouble seeing why anyone would want to drop $26 on one of these books, because they're uniformly awful, even if you really like the guy who "wrote" it. Yet when one after another of these books sells terribly, the publishers keep buying them. This is yet more evidence, in case anyone needed any, that publishers are terrible businesspeople.

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