Vast Write-Wing Conspiracy

Idea and reality are often miles apart, especially when it comes to business schemes. It's a Panglossian truism displayed a few weeks ago with the release of Ed Klein's The Truth About Hillary, the first high-visibility title from Sentinel, the imprint of the august publishing house Penguin that was launched in August 2004 for the specific purpose of publishing red-meat, right-wing fare.

The idea was that a high-profile, “ideology-free” author with mainstream credentials would give Sentinel a bit of ideological cover and get the book taken seriously in literary circles in a way that titles from Regnery, the hydra-headed monster of right-wing publishing, do not. The Truth promised startling revelations about the junior New York senator that would, as Matt Drudge put it in a breathless April 10 posting, “sink [her] candidacy for president.” Sentinel even moved up the publication date from fall to June 21 to get the most out of the incipient publicity.

The reality, of course, is that the book is nothing more than a cynically fourth-rate homage to the long-standing obsessions of the well-organized Hillary resistance movement on the right. It's been exposed as rife with inaccuracies and attacked -- and the author vilified -- by both left and right.

But in spite of -- or because of -- all the criticism, Klein's book is a financial success, debuting at No. 2 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list on July 10. So, far from being a warning to other publishers, The Truth, it's sad to say, represents a new trendlette in a Manhattan publishing industry that will do just about anything to improve a lagging bottom line. Call it the “Regnery North” strategy.

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The history of right-leaning book publishing in New York has been an episodic one at best. Some traditional nonfiction houses have carved out occasional runs of right-wing books. The Free Press, first under Erwin Glikes and later under Adam Bellow, ruled the conservative roost during the 1990s, with the wildly successful marketing of books like Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, the since-converted David Brock's The Real Anita Hill, and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.

But that was one imprint (within Simon & Schuster; it still exists but is no longer right-leaning). And it was accepted because, however problematic the titles referred to above, The Free Press published actual intellectual fare as well; it leaned left with the odd title, and both Glikes and Bellow were respected in the trade. Now, however, three imprints have arisen: In addition to Sentinel, there's Crown Forum, started by Random House in June 2003, and the just-announced Threshold, Simon & Schuster's new entry, headed by that well-known literary lioness Mary Matalin (her first book: a memoir by Mary Cheney, the vice president's lesbian daughter, due out in May 2006). Having observed the commercial success of last year's Unfit for Command (another Regnery title), the New York publishing scene seems willing to serve as a ready megaphone for the ardent partisans of the conservative movement. And it's doing it in the most crudely effective way possible -- by ransacking Regnery talent outright (Jed Donahue at Crown Forum and Bernadette Malone at Sentinel are both from the Regnery stable).

Malone came to Sentinel after having been lured from her Alexandria, Virginia (red state), digs for dark-blue Gotham. “Everything I saw coming out of New York were books for New Yorkers by New Yorkers,” she told me not long ago. “I never had any desire to go join that exercise. But if New York was going to start publishing conservative books one way or another, I wanted to make sure they were going to be done by conservative editors. I want to see these books work and influence as many people as possible.”

Malone is constantly on the prowl for new names and faces, movement figures primed to rant their way into the media spotlight. At one event in early 2004, a suggestion from former Ronald Reagan press secretary Marlin Fitzwater led Malone to sign Jim Kuhn, a onetime executive assistant to Reagan, to pen Sentinel's debut title, last July's Ronald Reagan in Private, which turned out to sell poorly. But what Malone needs more than ready propagandists are titles that stay relentlessly on message, books that -- chapter by chapter, line by line -- reaffirm the beliefs of the core readership.

To achieve that, Malone will sometimes push to make a book more confrontational in tone in order to attract the conservative movement's media constituency, the highly motivated network of activists who will recommend a book online or perhaps orchestrate bulk orders for fellow proselytizers. For example, Malone pushed to keep buzzword references to Christopher Columbus on the cover of January's A Patriot's History of the United States as a way to “signal to [book buyers] that he's our guy, and that this book is going to defend Columbus, not trash him.” At other times, she's had to modulate a book's content to appease the family-values constituency, such as removing curse words from Sentinel's late summer George W. Bush apologia, A Matter of Character.

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The basic point of the conservative rant industry is to turn the ranters on the right into celebrities. “There's a strong market for conservative books because there's such a strong and effective marketing machinery in place,” says Bellow, now an editor-at-large for Doubleday. “You have FOX News and all the various talk-radio shows -- along with conservative bloggers and Web sites like the Drudge Report and NewsMax, which draw in millions of visitors -- that generate book sales.” Even mid-list conservative authors at Regnery, and now at other conservative reservoirs, go through a brutal schedule of scores or hundreds of radio interviews during the initial launch of their books.

Regnery perfected this MO in the mid-'90s, when it realized that the traditional book-promotion strategies of reviews and readings weren't working for its list. Most mainstream reviewing outlets ignored their titles completely. So the house began producing shriller titles, keyed to the preoccupations of the energetic Clinton-haters then thronging to Rush Limbaugh and The American Spectator's dubious string of exposés on everything from “Troopergate” to the Vince Foster case. As the Regnery list got more aggressively polemical, so did the house's marketing strategies. Editors honed books into ready talking-point formats so as to maximize play on TV and conservative talk radio. Margi Ross, Regnery's current publisher, put it bluntly. “What we're using,” she says, “is a pointy stick in the eye to attract media attention.”

Going back in the Regnery files, one can see all sorts of unlikely breakout titles that enjoyed similar tours through the freestanding conservative media. One can also see in Regnery's backlist the makings of a Ronco late-night-TV offer: the greatest hits of the Clinton-hating right. There's former FBI agent Gary Aldrich's 1996 Clinton tell-all, Unlimited Access, which in many ways set the standard for other lurid, right-marketed tales from the Clinton dark side, such as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's paranoid ruminations in The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, and the late Barbara Olsen's successive screeds against the Clintons. There's Ann Coulter's maiden work clamoring for a Clinton impeachment, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, published in 1998 (Coulter is now a Crown Forum author). And there's Bias, Bernard Goldberg's sensationalistic j'accuse against supposed liberal ideological distortion at CBS News. All are Regnery titles that effectively staked out the contours of red America's reading habits long before the construct emerged out of the heads of weary news producers on election night 2000.

And now, from their more prominent perches in New York, Donahue and Malone have taken this process an additional step further -- tailoring an idea for a book in-house and then going out to recruit an author likely to win it maximum media exposure. “Sometimes we just feel there should be a book on something,” says Donohue, who convenes regular brainstorming sessions among the staff to determine what a hot conservative title of the moment should be. “Rather than sitting back and waiting, we're being proactive and doing books that should be done.”

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It all sounds brilliant. But one might ask, for example, whether these titles meet the standards to which venerated publishing houses are meant to hew.

Gary Aldrich, for instance, demonstrably invented a tale about Bill Clinton meeting women in a Marriott hotel (he himself called the visits “hypothetical”). Coulter's lies have been richly documented -- as have others', as most certainly have Ed Klein's. Bias is one thing, and one would be a fool to deny that the vast majority of people who work in New York publishing lean left (although, for the record, the best-known conservative pundits all have mainstream publishers). Of course they do. But the vast majority absolutely do not, whatever their political views, knowingly publish books in which the author just makes stuff up. Ideological fervor doesn't excuse outright invention. So the right has pulled off a neat trick: Under cover of “diversity,” it has actually persuaded Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster to lower their standards for truth.

It wasn't easy finding publishing people willing to talk about this for the record, but these comments, from one well-connected agent, are typical of what I was told when I asked people if Penguin had gone to the dark side. “I find it very disingenuous, and also humorous, that these people who are now trying to lay claim to a certain segment of this market launch their books under the guise of some sort of social responsibility,” this agent said. “Why don't they just admit that Regnery's making a fortune, and they want a piece of it? They're just trying to get a piece of the pie, and it's an ugly piece of the pie. They're being so disingenuous in owning up to what they're actually doing that I think they must feel guilt about something.”

But profit goes a lot further these days. “Clearly our editors here have traditionally been more plugged into what's going on on the left, which reflects what books you publish,” says Simon & Schuster Publisher David Rosenthal. In 2003, I asked the very liberal Rosenthal whether his house would launch a conservative imprint, and his reply was derisive laughter. Now, with Threshold on the horizon, he gives a more tough-minded business response. “Any imprint works if the books sell,” he says. “It doesn't matter if it's about conservatives or field hockey or gastroenterology. Pick the right [titles] and you make a lot of money. If you don't, then you're out on your ass.”

Maybe so. But it's not clear what sort of long-range business model Malone, Donahue, and Matalin will be presiding over in the notoriously unstable world of publishing. The initial runs each imprint has made at the best-seller list have proven a bit deceptive, as Sentinel and Crown Forum titles typically enjoy one- to two-week spikes on the list, thanks to spasms of interest resulting from carpet-bombed publicity on the radio or Internet, and then settle into middling sales. In that sense, The Truth about Hillary reveals more about conservative books and the standards of mainstream publishing than it does about the besieged junior senator from New York.

Christopher Dreher is a writer living outside Boston. This column originally misidentified Gary Aldrich as a Secret Service agent.

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