Written by Harry Stein
August 3, 2008
by Harry Stein: City Journal
The Future of Conservative Books As mainstream publishers' flirtation with the Right cools, smaller houses are stepping in.
In 2003, something unthinkable happened in the tradition-bound-and unapologetically liberal-world of book publishing: two of the largest and best-known conglomerates, Penguin and Random House, set up imprints, Sentinel and Crown Forum, dedicated to producing conservative books. Two years later, Simon and Schuster added its own right-leaning imprint, Threshold.
Conservatives had every reason to take the new imprints as validation, another vital step in an ongoing process. One by one, the media bastions were falling: first talk radio, thanks largely to Rush Limbaugh; then TV, with FOX's dominance of cable; and, of course, the rise of the conservative blogosphere. Now mainstream publishers had at last realized, however grudgingly, that there were millions of conservative readers out there.
Yet over the past few years, some of the optimism on the right that greeted this publishing mini-revolution has faded. Outside the new imprints, the New York publishing world clearly remains a liberal stronghold, uncomprehending of, when not outright hostile to, conservative ideas-and authors. Mainstream media outlets that conventional publishers rely on to tout books have just as little enthusiasm for conservative titles. And though George W. Bush has been an incredible boon to conspiracy-mongering authors on the left, he's done the opposite of good for sales at the new imprints, which have faced a much tougher market of late. In fact, there is much evidence suggesting that the rich vein of Coulter-style liberal-bashing polemics that drove so much of conservative publishing's healthy sales has largely been mined. Amid all this uncertainty, will the new conservative imprints survive?
Conservative books are hardly a new phenomenon. As early as the 1920s, there was a small but steady market for conservative titles, mostly produced by houses far from Manhattan and the odd university press. Originally published by Morrow in 1935, Our Enemy, the State, Albert J. Nock's influential brief against New Deal statism, has since enjoyed no fewer than five editions, from Caxton, Hallberg, Ayer, Laissez Faire Books, and Fox & Wilkes. Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom eventually found an American publisher in the University of Chicago Press in 1944, and Yale University Press ran Ludwig von Mises's Omnipotent Government five years later.
The original publisher of Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, in 1960, was Victor, out of Shepherdsville, Kentucky; and 1964's A Choice, Not an Echo, by Goldwater booster Phyllis Schlafly, was produced by tiny, Alton, Illinois-based Pere Marquette. (Similarly, Ivan R. Dee, which publishes some of today's most thoughtful books on public policy from a conservative perspective-including many by City Journal authors-is out of Chicago.)
Even mainstream houses produced the occasional conservative title. In 1988, to take the most famous example, Simon and Schuster paid little-known University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom a modest $10,000 advance and got a surprise monster bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. "Dick Snyder was running S. and S. back then, and he really did believe in the free market of ideas," remembers Bob Asahina, who edited the book. "I was pretty much free to acquire anyone I wanted." Brad Miner, who would go on to work at National Review and run the conservative book club American Compass, says that Harper and Row hired him in 1984 in part because he was a conservative. "I brought them books by Bill Buckley and Charles Kessler," he recalls, "and also Sidney Hook, who was hardly a conservative but felt like one to the lefties at Harper.
But of course they were names. Every time I brought up someone they hadn't heard of, they would say, ‘No, Brad, we want to do conservative books, just not this one.' There really was no conception of the size of the potential market, or what the country was like. It was like the famous Steinberg drawing with New York as the center of the world, that odd liberal version of reality."
But for conservatives of the late eighties and early nineties, the go-to house was the Free Press, run by the legendary Erwin Glikes, a Belgian-born refugee from Nazism who turned right in the wake of the 1968 student protests at Columbia. Under his auspices, the Free Press briefly constituted a one-company revolution, publishing traditional conservatives like George Will and Robert Bork as well as the provocative likes of Dinesh D'Souza, David Horowitz, Francis Fukuyama, and Charles Murray, whose collaboration with Richard Herrnstein-The Bell Curve, on the differences in intellectual capacity among individuals and groups-set off a national furor.
In 1994, however, the Free Press was swallowed up by Simon and Schuster and went liberal. "You'd think the industry would have learned something from the success of so many Free Press authors and The Closing of the American Mind," notes Adam Bellow, who was mentored by Glikes at the Free Press, later became Doubleday's in-house conservative editor, and today works at HarperCollins, where he is still one of the few acknowledged conservatives working in a mainstream house. "But no. They resisted trying to seriously get into this market for another 15 years."
They resisted even after the appearance in 1992 of the biggest conservative blockbuster of all, Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be. Acquired for a low-six-figure advance by a maverick junior editor at Simon and Schuster named Judith Regan, the book went on to own the Number One spot on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks, but liberal decision makers in the business still regarded it as an aberration. That left a gaping opening for the emerging conservative colossus, Regnery (a successor to the Henry Regnery Company, which had published such notable books as William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind)-until the New York publishing world woke up.
Crown Forum is indisputably the most successful of the new imprints. Launched in a glow of optimism by Steve Ross-that rare publishing liberal genuinely interested in books all over the ideological spectrum-it started with a sales asset precious almost beyond measure: Ann Coulter, who had been lured from Regnery. As every infuriated liberal on the planet knows, she has churned out red-meat bestsellers, the foundation of Crown Forum's success, ever since.
According to Nielsen's BookScan, which measures retail sales, Coulter's most recent bestseller, last fall's If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, has sold 126,000 hardcover copies to date, by most standards an extremely impressive figure. That pales beside the 279,000 copies BookScan recorded for her previous bestseller, 2006's Godless: The Church of Liberalism, as well as her earlier efforts, it's worth noting. But as Jed Donahue, her gentlemanly editor at Crown Forum, points out, BookScan fails to register sales at some of Coulter's chief outlets, like conservative book clubs and below-retail superstores like Costco and BJ's. Further, If Democrats Had Any Brains was not an original work but a deftly organized collection of previously published quotations-and it still debuted at Number Three on the Times bestseller list.
The reception of Coulter's next original book this fall-the subject and title remain under wraps-will show whether she retains her status as the wicked queen of conservative publishing. In any case, over the past five years Crown Forum has built up a roster of other notable right-leaning authors, from Michael Barone and Ken Timmerman to M. Stanton Evans and Robert Novak, who have sold respectably if not spectacularly; indeed, Novak's quirky memoir, The Prince of Darkness, was a bestseller last year. Crown Forum's future roster includes not only Coulter and George Will but Charles Murray, Michael Medved, and Florida senator Mel Martinez, whose memoir will describe his arrival in America as an impoverished Cuban teenager.
Penguin's Sentinel imprint, however, has had a less impressive record lately. True, it scored some major victories in the past, including Ronald Kessler's pro-Bush A Matter of Character; Mona Charen's Do-Gooders, on liberal good intentions gone horribly awry; and its biggest seller of all, Ed Klein's 2005 The Truth About Hillary, which left its author such a pariah in liberal elite circles that he had to give up his home in the Hamptons. But over the past several years, Sentinel has failed to produce a similar success, and publisher Adrian Zackheim allows that it has recently "been taking on fewer books and become a lot more selective.
This year we'll publish only five or six, including Mike Huckabee's book-down from ten a few years ago. We want to keep the imprint as robust as possible, but the way to do that is not simply to keep our output up and pretend the market is what it was three years ago." With that in mind, Sentinel has just signed Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, slated for 2010.
Threshold, the third entry in the mainstream-goes-conservative sweepstakes, got off to a disastrous start through overreliance on top editor Mary Matalin's network of Washington insiders-turned-authors-its first title, Mary Cheney's Now It's My Turn, sold only 9,000 copies after an advance said to be in the million-dollar range. But the imprint has lately produced a pair of hits: Surrender Is Not an Option, John Bolton's chips-fall-where-they-may memoir about his highly charged stint at the UN; and talk-show host Glenn Beck's good-natured assault on political correctness, An Inconvenient Book, which has recorded sales of more than 300,000.
Threshold looks to upcoming books by proven sellers Beck and radio talk-show host Mark Levin, as well as General Richard Myers, to continue that trend. "The lesson we've learned, or actually relearned, is that there are no hard-and-fast rules in this business, aside from the fact you've got to be smart, creative, and persistent," observes Louise Burke, Threshold's publisher. "There's a conservative market out there, and it's not going away."
Despite the imprints' diverse experiences, their staffers can agree on one thing: the continuing hostility of the broader publishing world, which dismisses most conservative titles as unserious screeds by mean-spirited ideologues. Don't hold your breath waiting for even the most gifted and serious conservative writer to pick up a Pulitzer or the National Book Award. After the 2004 election, notes Bellow, "it became an anthropological question for them: ‘Who are these people?' There followed a whole cottage industry of books and articles trying to prove that conservatives are a product of bad parenting, psychological syndromes, or genetic defects-as well as generally stupid and evil."
Among mainstream publishers, hostility toward conservative thought is so pronounced that it can distort all semblance of commercial judgment. Bernard Goldberg's Bias ended up with Regnery only because the book-originally titled Media Culpa, before the marketing wizards at the conservative house renamed it-was turned down by every mainstream publisher his agent sent it to. "He would call me," recalls Goldberg, "and report, ‘So-and-so passed,' then read me the note from the editor. It would say things like, ‘This is well written, but the premise doesn't make any sense. Liberal bias? What's that supposed to mean?' "
Still, when the agent reported that Regnery was potentially interested, Goldberg was unsure. "A conservative publisher? I felt a little funny about that." Friends told him that going with Regnery would stigmatize the book, brand it as slanted by definition. Thinking back, he can only thank his lucky stars that he didn't listen-and, even more so, that the mainstream houses had no interest.
"This idea that a Regnery book is somehow illegitimate is just incredible BS! Why is it that we're supposed to be concerned about Regnery being a conservative house, but nobody worries about all the publishers in Manhattan being liberal houses? It scares me even thinking about what would've happened if I'd gone with one of those houses. The book would've come and gone in a minute and sold exactly no copies!"
More to the point, the book would never have energized the crucial public debate on liberal media bias that has raged ever since. Even as it was, most of Goldberg's former colleagues in the mainstream media-many of whom brag that they've never read the book-continue adamantly to deny that such bias exists.
The mainstream houses demonstrate their liberal bias even when they condescend to publish a non-PC book. Take Until Proven Innocent, Stuart Taylor and K. C. Johnson's look at Durham D.A. Michael Nifong's legal near-lynching of three Duke University lacrosse players accused of rape and how the university and the liberal media mob abetted it. Published by the Thomas Dunne imprint of St. Martin's Press, the book was much anticipated in conservative circles and appeared to great critical acclaim.
Yet it died quickly, victim of a publisher that utterly failed to grasp its potential appeal. "They [initially] printed only 13,000 copies and, as far as I know, gave it no advertising," says a still-frustrated Taylor, who considers himself a liberal. "Amazon sold out the third day, and we got hundreds of e-mails from all over the country from people that couldn't find it in the stores, which just killed it commercially. The truth is, the house just never seemed very excited about the book." According to BookScan, the book ended up selling 17,000 copies.
Bellow reports that even Jonah Goldberg's recent mammoth bestseller, Liberal Fascism, which he edited at Doubleday, was at first given short shrift by the house. "We printed 14,000 copies, and shipped 12,000," he says. "But Jonah was an Internet star, and in the first week, the demand from his troops was so intense that it jumped onto the Times's list.
With 12,000 copies in print! Even then, Doubleday just eked the book out into the marketplace, reprinting in quantities of 5,000 or 10,000. If this had been a book by a major liberal journalist, they would have gone out with 30,000 copies and reprinted in increments of 20,000, and we would have been up to 150,000 in no time, with huge stacks in Barnes and Noble. Even when Jonah's book hit Number One, it still wasn't easily obtainable. You'd walk into a Barnes and Noble and, if they had it at all, it would be tucked away on the second floor in the back in the sociology section. Eventually, they pushed the book up to 198,000 copies. I would like to have seen 300,000 in print."
It isn't surprising, then, that while those who edit the new conservative imprints are in the publishing world, they are distinctly not of it-a dispiriting obstacle in a business that thrives on collegiality. "It was total culture shock," says Bernadette Malone, until recently senior editor at Sentinel. "Everybody reads the New York Times every day and takes it as orthodoxy-signing books on that basis! It was evident very quickly how insular the whole system is.
They could all name three, four, five chefs but couldn't name a single clergyman." Malone vividly recalls the morning after George W. Bush's reelection in November 2004. "I'm sitting there in my office, and a young editorial assistant walks in. Without a word, she raises her eyes to the sky, turns up her palms and wrists"-Malone demonstrates, making like a martyred saint-"and starts weeping in front of my desk." She pauses. "All I can say is, ‘I'm very sorry for your loss,' which is what you say at a funeral, right?"
Since the new conservative imprints have far less latitude than traditional nonfiction imprints to fail, they tend to rely heavily on, and largely be defined by, a handful of proven iconic authors. "Each of these companies has its own Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, or Bill O'Reilly," says Brad Miner, "and is constantly seeking the next." But, counters Crown Forum's Donahue, "Too many people, even in the industry, buy into the caricature that conservative publishing is all about polemics.
We've published memoirs like Bob Novak's The Prince of Darkness and Michael Medved's Right Turns; serious works of history; investigative journalists like Bill Gertz and Ken Timmerman; not to mention the George Wills and Michael Barones of the world." Malone similarly cites Sentinel titles like Mary Eberstadt's brief against day care, Home-Alone America, and Nonie Darwish's Now They Call Me Infidel as books that were "reasoned, thoughtful, and made an enormous contribution to the debate in the public arena."
Even reasoned, thoughtful contributions don't, however, yield balanced media treatment: mainstream press coverage for conservative books is almost invariably unfavorable, if it happens at all. A leftist polemic like Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?-which takes as its thesis that midwesterners tend to vote Republican because they are blithely ignorant of their own self-interest-can generate reams of copy on the nation's leading op-ed pages and in magazines from The New Yorker to Playboy. In the 20 years since The Closing of the American Mind, no book on the right has had anything like a comparable reception in the press. Denis Boyles's recent Superior, Nebraska, a smart and witty rejoinder to Frank that stresses midwesterners' historical industriousness and self-reliance, generated no mainstream attention at all.
Still more striking is the example of Syracuse professor Arthur C. Brooks's Who Really Cares?, which showed that conservatives give a good deal more to charity than liberals do. With a surge of support from conservative media, including prized appearances on Rush Limbaugh's and Bill O'Reilly's shows, the book took off. Yet it was almost impossible to find a liberal who knew it existed, since it went unreviewed and unremarked upon by the New York Times and the Washington Post and was never covered on any network news program or NPR. "If we could have had a generalized debate in the culture-if CNN had been willing to cover the subject the way FOX did-the impact could have been so much greater," says Brooks. "FOX was all over this like a cheap suit.
But FOX is behind a firewall." Meanwhile, Mark Steyn's best-selling, enormously controversial America Alone similarly went unreviewed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Small wonder that Roger Kimball, publisher of right-of-center, independent Encounter Books (which also frequently publishes City Journal authors), no longer bothers sending his titles to the New York Times. Similarly likely to savage any book identified as conservative are the professional journals: Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, which are widely read by booksellers, and Library Journal, a guide for the nation's librarians that can guarantee a long shelf life well after a book's sales have stopped.
Bellow routinely gives liberal colleagues on the marketing side a short primer on the realities of publishing conservative books. "You have to prepare them for what's going to happen-you're going to get the bad review in PW, followed by the indignant column by Paul Krugman-but you have to let them know that in this case, bad is good. We need our enemies, we cherish them. We use the New York Times to energize conservative media. I send every book I publish to [Times columnist] Frank Rich, with a nice note saying, ‘I hope you hate this one.' Unfortunately, they've gotten a little more savvy about being used that way, and tend not to respond. That's why I miss Anthony Lewis-he could never restrain himself."
No wonder the hugely successful Regnery selling machine aims its books directly at the conservative base, looking to talk radio, FOX News, and the Internet to drive sales. "Oprah is not one of the places we go for our books," notes Sandy Schultz-who started with Regnery and now does publicity for a range of conservative imprints-of the show most mainstream publicists would give their firstborn to book. "We're much more interested in Fox and Friends than the traditional network morning shows.
The fact is, liberal producers don't want to give conservatives a platform. When Tom Friedman or even Al Franken has a new book, you'll never see someone on from the other side challenging them, but if they have on a conservative, they'll set up a debate format. The School of Regnery says: ‘No media for media's sake; media to sell books.' " The approach has paid off. Though Regnery produces only 20 to 25 titles annually, of the 72 conservative books that have been on the New York Times bestseller list in the past six years, 23 were from Regnery, and more than half of the rest were by authors who got their start with it.
Conservative houses and imprints deserve credit for their innovation in utilizing the new conservative media and their stubbornness in getting the word out. But their efforts don't change the fact that mainstream press bias still distances their books from what Mortimer Adler termed "the great conversation," the ongoing dialogue at the upper echelons of American intellectual life about the crucial moral and intellectual questions.
Bellow isn't optimistic about the new conservative imprints' future. "My own feeling is that these imprints are designed to fail," he says. "Management would be happy to see them succeed for financial reasons-yet because they basically see this type of publishing as deeply distasteful, an alien organism within the publishing body, they'd be just as happy if they fail. Then they could say, ‘See, we tried, this kind of publishing is not a good business,' and move on." Regnery president and publisher Marji Ross concurs. "The large publishing houses have always held their noses when it comes to conservative imprints," she says. "My guess is that if they survive at all, they'll transition from conservative politics to just politics and current events." And so does Encounter's Kimball: "The truth is, there's never been real commitment to the ideas in those books or, for that matter, to genuine intellectual pluralism. Once it's clear the wind's shifted and they're less profitable, it's a good bet they'll be gone."
If the imprints are to survive, perhaps it will be through what Bellow describes as persuading "mainstream publishers to stop seeing conservatives as a market to be ghettoized and exploited, but as a vital part of the American tapestry. But," he adds, "I also think conservatives are also going to have to adjust-get smarter, argue better, and write more with an intention to persuade, rather than just mock, belittle, and demonize."
The future of conservative publishing, he says, is not in books that can be readily dismissed as "right-wing hyperbole" but in those that so manifestly grapple with important ideas that even those on the other side cannot dismiss them. The recent success of small, idea-driven Encounter-which enjoyed one of its best years ever in 2007 with books like Melanie Phillips's Londonistan-as well as that of Delaware-based ISI Books suggests that he may be right. Similarly, Crown Forum's Donahue asserts that the current deep divides on the right will lead to a less doctrinaire movement, creating a climate where "there will be room for a lot of different voices" and invigorating the conservative imprints.
But no matter what happens to those imprints, conservative publishing will certainly survive-and thrive. If liberals continue to ignore the power of conservative books, moreover, the losers will not be conservatives-who cannot help but be endlessly exposed to left-wing views through the networks and leading newspapers-but liberals themselves, complacent in their ignorance of the other side. "There's always another side, that's a classically liberal argument," observes Bellow with a laugh. "The problem for contemporary liberals is that they really don't understand it applies to them."
Harry Stein, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace).