And their titles imitate playground taunts. Comic Al Franken's bestselling Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot is parried by Bernard Goldberg's also bestselling 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37).
Thomas Nelson Books, a venerable Christian publishing house -- the world's largest producer of Bibles -- has established an imprint featuring authors like Michael Savage, a caustic talk radio host with a book called Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder.
ReganBooks, a HarperCollins subsidiary, published two sparring titles on the same day last month: The Case for Hillary Clinton, by Susan Estrich, who's a fan of the senator from New York, and Condi vs. Hillary, co-authored by Dick Morris, who, it's safe to say, is not.
Coming soon in the same vein: Ten Excellent Reasons Not to Join the U.S. Army, a collection of essays with an opening chapter by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. And Kate O'Beirne's Women Who Make the World Worse: And How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports.
American polemics date back to pamphleteers like Tom Paine (Common Sense was a bestseller, too), but it's hard to recall a recent time when the style was this ascendant.
If you can't say anything nice, the current thinking goes, maybe you should be an author.
The Galvanizing Moment
Political opinion has always been a staple, sometimes appearing on publishing houses' general lists, sometimes originating with imprints like Pantheon (once a liberal enclave) or the Free Press (once known for conservative authors). But the revved-up tone is a more contemporary contribution.
In cranking up the volume and the partisanship, "publishers are following a trend, rather than initiating one," says veteran editor Robert Asahina, who acquired books by William Bennett, Allan Bloom and Bill O'Reilly before leaving publishing in 1999. "I don't think you can separate this from the general trend in the media; if anything, publishers lagged behind television, and especially radio."
Indeed, book people often cite an early '90s milestone in polemicism: Judith Regan, then a senior editor at Pocket Books, acquired a book by a recently syndicated radio personality about whom New York publishing people knew very little. "Everyone was skeptical," recalls Will Weisser, a junior publicist at the time. "But she said, 'No, you wait and see. This guy' " -- Rush Limbaugh by name -- " 'is huge in the rest of the country. It's going to be a big book.' And it sold something like two million copies in hardcover -- in 1992, when nothing sold two million copies."
Regan has been amused, in the intervening years, to watch editors who rolled their eyes at Limbaugh scramble to try to duplicate his success. "What people respond to in this culture is loud and brash and pointed and sometimes vulgar -- that's what gets people's attention, on TV and radio and in books," says Regan, who has also published Sean Hannity and Michael Moore. "Shades-of-gray books are very difficult to sell."
Through the Clinton years, as the intensifying shrillness spread to cable television (both Fox News and MSNBC debuted in 1996), a once gentlemanly business discovered profits in polemics.
Perhaps the raft of Clinton-bashing books was to be expected: It's a political axiom that those out of power are energized by their exile. Yet conservative books continued to flourish long after Republicans took Congress and the White House. Liberal assaults, by writers like Molly Ivins and Vincent Bugliosi, moved briskly, too. The contested 2000 election helped fan the flames, and then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath kept publishers' and readers' attention focused on public affairs.
Now, industry people say, the country's ongoing political and cultural divisions will encourage this sort of red-meat publishing for years. "James Carville was right when he talked about the permanent campaign," says Craig Shirley of the Alexandria public relations and lobbying firm Shirley & Banister, which promotes 15 to 25 conservative titles each year. "You can say this is good because it spreads ideas, or it's bad because it spreads partisanship -- but it's good for books."
The Conservative Rise
Each time one of its books appears on the New York Times bestseller list, Regnery Books hangs the framed cover in its Washington offices. It has compiled such a stunning percentage in recent years -- a third of its books make the list, says publisher Marji Ross -- that it's running short of wall space. Among the jackets on view: Unfit for Command, the rushed-to-press attack on John Kerry's military record. With close to 600,000 sold, Ross estimates, it's Regnery's all-time bestseller.
If Judith Regan's books helped demonstrate that polemics could sell, Regnery became a role model for specialization; it publishes little else. Yet few of Regnery's staffers have backgrounds in book publishing. They're more likely to have come from political operations or, like Ross herself, direct marketing. The media firm that Regnery often hires, Alexandria's Creative Response Concepts, has also worked for the Christian Coalition and the Republican National Committee. Small wonder that Ross describes Regnery's promotional efforts as less like book launches than political campaigns.
In this, it has benefited from the transformed media environment. Regnery sells its books mostly through normal retail channels, but it promotes them largely on conservative talk radio instead of relying on ads or reviews.
"It's not enough to go on a two-week book tour," Ross tells her authors. "Our model is to do literally hundreds of radio interviews." New York radio host Mark Levin, for instance, did nearly two months of non-stop radio promotion for Men in Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America, which has already sold about 150,000 copies, Ross says. With each new Supreme Court nominee, Regnery books Levin on more shows.
That approach -- targeting one pole of the political spectrum with a few very pointed titles, propelled by a lot of friendly media -- has tripled Regnery's sales over the past six years, Ross says. Competitors were bound to take notice.
Steve Ross (no relation to Marji) was among the first. He was reading the manuscript of Ann Coulter's Slander, which his company, Crown (a Random House division), published in 2002, when the idea began to take shape. Slander had a lot to say about liberals and media, including the book business. "I found myself nodding in agreement despite myself," Ross says. "In my 15 years of publishing in New York, every single person I knew on the editorial side operated from a liberal orientation."
His response was Crown Forum, an imprint that would publish 12 to 15 conservative titles a year, introduced in April 2003. As it happened, Penguin had been planning a similar move; its new conservative imprint, Sentinel, coincidentally announced on the same day, would begin with eight or nine books a year. Thomas Nelson created its Current line last year, and Simon & Schuster followed this spring with Threshold Editions, whose editor-in-chief is a veteran not of the book trade but of Republican campaigns: Mary Matalin.
The result, with some of the world's largest media companies backing the new imprints, has been hot competition for brand-name conservative authors. In recent auctions, "there were several books where we dropped out at between $200,000 and $300,000," says Regnery's Marji Ross. Bill Gertz, after three books with Regnery, decamped to Crown Forum. Sentinel nabbed Regnery author Mona Charen's second book but was outbid for Second Daughter Mary Cheney's upcoming memoir; Matalin landed it for Threshold.
Liberal authors have hardly gone unheard from during these developments. Probably the bestselling political book in the country in the past year was Jon Stewart & Co.'s America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. More satiric than polemical, reflecting "The Daily Show" 's inclination to raise an eyebrow rather than pound a table, it sold a remarkable 1.5 million hardcover copies in its first 12 months.
In fact, the nonfiction side of the New York Times bestseller list in October 2004, when pre-election polemicizing was at its height, shows dominance shifting between camps. Unfit for Command held sway in the early part of the month, along with Gen. Tommy Franks's memoir, which defended the Bush administration. None of the liberals, Democrats or administration critics on the list (including Seymour Hersh, Maureen Dowd and Bill Clinton himself) could best them. Then Jon Stewart took over the top slot, and conservatives were outgunned. By the end of the month, however, Ann Coulter and Bill Gertz had joined the swift boat authors, and the list was almost evenly divided.
But while partisans on either side can sell books, the publishing models emerging to handle them are dissimilar. Many popular polemicists like Al Franken and Bernard Goldberg are part of their publishing houses' general list, not of any politically aligned subdivision. But when it comes to publishers developing specialization on one side or the other of the great political divide, the processes are very different.
The Liberal Approach
A liberal imprint can also succeed, as Metropolitan Books, established a decade ago at Henry Holt, keeps demonstrating; its bestsellers include Thomas Frank's chronicle of a state's metamorphosis from liberal to conservative, What's the Matter with Kansas?; Barbara Ehrenreich's first-person account of unskilled labor, Nickel and Dimed, and this fall's Bait and Switch; and Noam Chomsky's treatise on American global dominance, Hegemony or Survival. In late 2003, it launched the American Empire project for "provocative, critical books that focus on the American turn towards empire-building," says founding editor Sara Bershtel.
"We thought, Lots of people will be doing this, publishing books on the progressive side, books that take a critical stance towards American foreign policy," Bershtel says. "It seemed so clear to us there was an audience for this."
Yet Metropolitan is the only imprint with an avowedly liberal skew at any of the major publishing houses. Most of the action in left-of-center publishing comes from small independent presses like Nation Books, the New Press, South End, Seven Stories, Soft Skull and Akashic (founded by a rock musician named Johnny Temple). They publish lots of titles -- 30 to 40 a year at Nation Books, 50 at the New Press, often original paperbacks. They have hits, sometimes unexpectedly: A small Vermont press called Chelsea Green says it has sold more than 250,000 copies of linguist George Lakoff's guide for progressives, Don't Think of an Elephant!
But they usually operate on a modest scale; part of their mission is to produce books that big publishers won't. When Nation Books, born in 2000, sells an estimated 135,000 copies of Perpetual War, by Gore Vidal, "that's fabulous; it's amazing," says editorial director Carl Bromley. "For a big house, it's . . . not bad."
The opportunity to be eclectic is part of what draws staffers to indie presses. Along with The Bush Hater's Handbook, Nation Books publishes fiction, music biographies, film criticism. "If you were publishing 50 Rush Limbaugh books, I think you'd drive yourself crazy," Bromley says.
Independence has its pleasures, but it also has its costs. None of the liberally inclined indie publishers, some of them nonprofits, has the deep pockets or sheer marketing muscle of the new conservative imprints, backed by major corporations. Small presses "don't have the money to commission an author to spend a year on a book," points out Andre Schiffrin, founding director of the New Press. "They can't compete for a promising new book. They don't have the money to get books into the chains," where publishers pay for prominent placement.
The question, then: If specialization is an advantage for conservative books -- because an imprint's publisher, editors and publicists know the market and how to reach it -- why isn't it an advantage for liberal books? Why have major publishers launched no left-wing counterparts to right-wing Sentinel and Threshold?
In a sign of the polarization that's spawned so many polemics, answers to this question split neatly along political lines:
"There are no liberal imprints because it's a redundancy," says Steve Ross of Crown Forum. Meaning, their editors already know where to find liberal authors, and their publicists know how to reach left-of-center readers, so there's no need to concentrate. "All the imprints that publish political nonfiction are liberal imprints."
This prompts a dismissive snort from Sara Bershtel of Metropolitan: "More of that liberal-media and victimized-conservative nonsense."
Colin Robinson, publisher of the New Press, insists, "Large corporations are not going to launch publishing imprints that consistently argue a liberal viewpoint. They won't do it. In the end, the owners are conservative."
"Complete insanity," retorts Judith Regan, whose imprint at HarperCollins -- a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- swings both ways. "Conservative, liberal, religious or not, anyone who runs a major corporation is interested in one thing: money."
The Future of Polemical Publishing
It's possible, of course, that not all the new conservative imprints will survive, particularly if they're overpaying to lure authors. Some of the new liberal presses may die off, too.
But most political publishers don't expect to see this genre fade anytime soon; it may actually be growing more entrenched. Publishing's satellite businesses are also acquiring political coloration: some literary agents attract clusters of conservative or liberal authors, and partisan publicity firms are growing. Two right-leaning book clubs, the 40-year-old Conservative Book Club and the 2-year-old American Compass, have about 50,000 members each; plans for a Progressive Book Club are well underway.
This is what retailers call "marketing segmentation," Robert Asahina points out: The mass audience is really many smaller ones that can be targeted effectively. "It's as true in media as in consumer electronics or home furnishings." The difference is that flat-screen TV sales rarely affect foreign policy or the Supreme Court, while even Democrats who denounced Unfit for Command as a pack of lies concede that it influenced a presidential election.
Books thus become part of the self-reinforcing loop that characterizes so much current political discussion. Audiences are likely to pay attention to media that they already find simpatico, where they are introduced to authors whose arguments they already accept.
Once a fractured media universe meets a polarized political climate, "people don't have to watch what they don't want to watch and they don't have to read what they don't want to read," Asahina says. "Why bother with someone you disagree with?" *
Paula Span, a former reporter for The Washington Post and a frequent contributor to Book World, teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.