You don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing. A copy of the bestseller list will do just fine.
Take "Guns, Crime, and Freedom," brought out by the D.C. firm of Regnery Publishing. Once you know the book was written by Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, you can easily guess its message. (Sample sentence: "Clearly, the Warsaw ghetto stands in history as a shining example of the dangers of gun control.")
What no one reckoned on was the message's popularity. Regnery started with around 20,000 copies last summer and now has 10 times that number in print. The biggest success in the publisher's 47-year history, "Guns" recently spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list -- an unusual place to find such a partisan look at such a hot-button issue. HarperCollins just bought paperback rights for a significant six-figure sum.
"This is about freedom. Not crime, not hunting, not recreation. Freedom. And people don't want to lose it," declares LaPierre. He adds that "people are totally fed up with the misreporting of this issue in the national media."
His hand is sore. He's done 82 book-signings in the past few months, ranging all over the country with the exception of a few gun control strongholds like the District and New York City. A couple hundred folks have been showing up at each.
One man's truth, of course, is another fellow's propaganda, but the prevalence of conservative/libertarian/right-wing/Republican truth on the bestseller list these days is overwhelming. Meanwhile, Democratic propaganda is about as fashionable as a panhandler at a picnic.
"For some reason, liberals are no longer able to talk about the world around us in a way that really gets people in their guts," says John Sterling, editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin. "But conservatives sure can. It's happening in Washington in Congress, and it's happening nationally on the bestseller lists."
Sterling successfully published one of the last unabashedly liberal books, Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance." "Was that only in 1992?" he asks. "It seems like a decade ago."
The tide has turned, the editor says. "If you were a publisher who just wanted to pick winners, you'd say: Let's sign up people who have great TV programs" -- a reference to the huge success of books by comics Tim Allen, Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld -- "and conservatives who have terrific media profiles."
And if you got a conservative with a terrific media profile and a popular radio and TV program, you could clean up. Which is exactly what Simon and Schuster has done with Rush Limbaugh.
Says Adam Bellow, editorial director of the Free Press: "The liberal monopoly on public debate has weakened. I'm always being asked, 'What manipulative magic did you use to create this audience for conservative books?' But the audience has always been there. It's just that before, conservative ideas were walled off in a ghetto."
The List Speaks Volumes
Consider some further evidence: William Bennett's "Book of Virtues," a compendium of moralizing fables, has been on the New York Times list for nearly a year. Dan Quayle's book was a bigger hit than anticipated. Richard Nixon's last book spent four times longer on the list than Jimmy Carter's. Barbara Bush has racked up 14 weeks and counting for her latest, vs. 0 and falling for Rosalynn Carter. The massive popularity of the No. 1 fiction bestseller "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" underlines the rapid progression of political correctness from liberal mantra to joke. Then, of course, there's the chart-topping nonfiction offering by Pope John Paul II -- not exactly anyone's idea of a leftist.
Still not convinced? Check out the fate of Mr. Anti-Family Values himself, Marlon Brando. His $5 million, heavily hyped, years-in-the-making autobiography arrived with a clunk in September. Even slashing the price 50 percent hasn't helped resuscitate it. No one wants to hear Brando's opinions about the fate of the Indians. No one wants to read Peter Manso's weighty biography of him either.
Instead, they want "The Bell Curve," Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's 845-page opus on "intelligence and class structure in American life." Touted on its dust jacket as "certain to ignite an explosive controversy," the book was attacked by most of the mainstream media as an ill-mannered, ill-conceived, statistically flawed, crypto-racist manifesto. There are now 400,000 copies in print, the biggest success in the Free Press's five decades and one of the most academic titles ever to make it to the upper reaches of the list. (Sample sentence: "The average validity in the meta-analysis of the GATB studies was .45.")
"It's something I've seen again and again," says the publisher, Bellow. "All you really need to get a book going -- at least, a conservative book -- is for the journalistic Establishment to denounce it."
If you talk to the mavens of the New York publishing world, they say "The Bell Curve" is this year's great unread bestseller, following in the footsteps of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Paul Kennedy's "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" and the novels of Umberto Eco.
"It's like buying a piece of exercise equipment," says one editor. "You do it with the best of intentions, but it never gets used."
Bellow rejects such assertions. "That attitude reflects a certain degree of contempt for the reading public," he says.
He figures three distinct groups are buying it and maybe even reading it. "I don't deny that people bought the book because it was controversial, and I don't even deny that some people bought the book just because they agreed with what they thought was in it, but a sizable number bought it because they wanted to make up their own minds."
Adam Bellow himself is the best proof of the conservative ascension in publishing. The 37-year-old son of Nobel laureate Saul, he's the hottest editor in New York.
Bellow has been running the Free Press since Erwin Glikes, the autocrat who built it into one of the country's major outlets of conservative intellectual thought, abruptly quit last spring. (Glikes didn't want to go to work for Dick Snyder, the autocrat who ruled Simon and Schuster. S&S had just bought Macmillan, which owned the Free Press, but Glikes had had a heart attack years ago when he worked for Snyder and wasn't keen on having another one. He decamped to Viking Penguin, but a couple of weeks later had a fatal heart attack anyway. A couple weeks after that, Snyder was fired by the new owners of S&S.)
With the success of "The Bell Curve," members of the journalistic Establishment are competing to interview Bellow. "Much as I would like to take credit for being a Machiavellian genius, I'm afraid I can't," he says. "This book created its own publicity."
Yet publicity doesn't necessarily cause people to buy books. If things were that simple, all three of the recent books about Charles and Diana would be on the list, which they assuredly are not. But at least publicity alerts booksellers and wholesalers that there may be demand for a particular title. Then, if customers want to take it home with them, they'll be able to find it.
"Some might say nine-tenths of selling large numbers of copies of any book is just getting it into the stores," says Bellow.
It's that other tenth that's tricky. Witness the example of "Strange Justice," the book on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill released in early November in a fireburst of publicity that approached that of "The Bell Curve." Within 24 hours, for instance, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson's work was touted on three different ABC programs.
"Strange Justice," with 115,000 copies in print, spent three weeks on the bestseller list. As Houghton Mifflin's Sterling, the book's editor, points out, this is an achievement in itself. "It's very hard to get any book of substance onto the bestseller list. Just look at it."
Still, he concedes that "I can certainly say that on November 2, when this started breaking, I thought we had a major bestseller on our hands. I thought it would translate into huge sales. Instead, it translated into very good sales."
Because the book concludes that Anita Hill was telling the truth about Clarence Thomas, it's perceived as "liberal." That's opposed to the "conservative" approach of Mayer and Abramson nemesis David Brock, who penned "The Real Anita Hill" 18 months ago.
Brock's book, which attacked Hill and supported Thomas, was an unexpected success. If "Strange Justice" is lucky and sells 70 percent of its print-run, the net sale will be about 80,000 copies -- significantly under the 115,000 achieved by "The Real Anita Hill."
As it happens, "The Real Anita Hill" was edited by Adam Bellow. And it, like "The Bell Curve," was attacked on publication, which as usual only helped. Once again, some people read it to see what all the noise was about, while for others it offered a point of view they found sympathetic -- and which hadn't received much air time by the mainstream media.
"Strange Justice," in Bellow's view, suffered in the marketplace from the fact that "it just confirms ruling prejudices. People don't really need it. Erwin Glikes always used to say that no one would buy a book that said astrology isn't true. The people who believe in astrology aren't going to be convinced, and the people who don't believe in it don't need to be convinced." After "Strange Justice" received its generally approving nods in the media, in other words, there was nothing left to say and nowhere for it to go.
The theory that people don't want to read about liberal politics isn't airtight. At first glance, it doesn't account for the problematic success of "All's Fair," the Mary Matalin-James Carville duet. If the Democrats were rejected in last month's election, why would anyone want to hear from a leading Democratic campaign consultant? And even if the Republicans are resurgent, George Bush isn't. So why would anyone want to hear from the political director of his ill-fated 1992 campaign?
But they did. "All's Fair" has 200,000 copies in print and had a good run on the bestseller list. The book was skillfully presented not as politics, but as show biz. "Both authors," says their editor, Random House's David Rosenthal, "have transcended politics to become entertainers, and celebrities. The Hepburn-Tracy comparison held."
Except in the city that knows the pair best: Washington. Sales here, at least by comparison, were disappointing.
Knowing Your Audience
Last spring, Crown Publishers ran ads for "Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis." National Rifle Association members were offered a $2 rebate if they sent in the receipt for the book and a copy of their membership card.
The number of responses, says publicist Andrew Martin, was "fewer than 10."
"That showed us that no NRA members were interested in looking at a book that took careful aim at the business of guns in America," says Martin. (Either that, he concedes, "or they didn't need $2.")
"Lethal Passage," by Wall Street Journal reporter Erik Larson, got good reviews and some attention during the crime bill debate, but it sold only modestly.
"People who hate guns don't want to read about them because they know they already hate them," says Larson. "They're delighted a book like mine, a critical book, came out, but they don't really feel they have to go out and read it.
"Whereas one thing that characterizes people who love guns is that they love to read about them. Especially after the last few years, they need to read something that reinforces their belief that owning a gun doesn't make you a homicidal maniac."
It's highly unusual for single-issue books that are closely affiliated with a particular special-interest group to appear even briefly on the Times bestseller list. For one thing, if a special-interest organization produces a book, it's usually sold through channels -- direct mail, conventions, specialty stores -- that don't report to the bestseller list.
"Guns, Crime and Freedom" has instead gone the mainstream route. Al Regnery, the head of Regnery Publishing, says the NRA has bought only a few copies directly. In fact, author LaPierre argues, the only thing that connects the book with the NRA is him -- "the book was done independently of the NRA and published independently," although on the other hand he confirms that "there's no doubt the NRA has supported the book." That includes mailings to members announcing signings, and some television "infomercials."
Two sorts of customers have been coming in for the book at the Waldenbooks in Town East Square in Wichita, says manager Doug Waring. NRA members ask for it by author and name. Others just say they've heard about a new book about guns, and does the store stock it?
So the book's sales stem in part from an endorsement of its views, and in part from straightforward curiosity. And maybe some old-fashioned salesmanship. At the Wichita signing -- the store's best in at least two years, by the way -- LaPierre shook everyone's hand, talked to them, graciously inscribed their books.
"He made good personal contact," says Waring. "Most authors don't treat people half as nice as he does."
CAPTION: Books reflecting conservative viewpoints have overtaken the bestseller list.
CAPTION: Conservatives are hitting pay dirt on the nation's bestseller lists. Three who have hit it particularly big: Clockwise from left, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, NRA head Wayne LaPierre and former education secretary Bill Bennett.