NEW YORK — Attention, conservatives: Adam Bellow says this is your moment.
The intellectual left, he contends, is in a vacuum. The right is where there are ideas, variety, excitement. And Bellow, a former liberal who has made a career of pushing conservative writers and controversial issues to the forefront of American publishing, wants to hear from you.
As an editor at the Free Press and then Doubleday, Bellow, son of the late novelist Saul Bellow, guided such provocative voices as Dinesh D’Souza (“Illiberal Education”), David Brock (“The Real Anita Hill”), Jonah Goldberg (“Liberal Fascism”), and Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein (“The Bell Curve”) to the top of the bestseller lists.
Now he thinks he can do the same with representatives from the tea party, the decentralized protest movement that has energized conservatives, dismayed liberals and spooked presidential candidates with its focus on free markets, limited government, fewer taxes and balanced budgets.
Bellow, 54, is editorial director of Broadside Books, HarperCollins’s conservative imprint, launched a year ago. Its mission, he says, is to “attack the intellectual roots of liberalism, and find and publish a lot of new thinking on the right.”
And it shouldn’t be hard, the New Yorker contends over coffee at the Metro Diner, a working person’s eatery at 100th and Broadway that is a favorite haunt. “There is zero fresh air coming from the left,” he says. “There is more genuine intellectual ferment on the right. Conservatives are better educated, if only to know what the left is saying and how to defend themselves.”
Some on the left might scoff. New Republic senior editor Timothy Noah, who has sparred with Bellow through columns and blogs over the years, says conservatism’s time is past. “Liberalism has more interesting ideas, mostly because it’s captured the center,” he says. “The tea party’s ideas occupy the fringe of American politics.”
But there’s no denying that, fringe or not, the tea party brought several dozen new members to Congress in 2010. Broadside is determined to capitalize on the trend. It is publishing a digital “Voices of the Tea Party” series: 3,000-to-5,000-word digital pamphlets, which sell for $1.99 and provide a platform for stories, idea sharing, public policy debates and new talent. There’s also a blog, an interactive Web site with free content, and a submission portal for would-be authors to send Broadside editors their work.
Most of the digital offerings from “Voices” are on ways to beat the system, or at least expose it. One author is Milton R. Wolf, a Kansas physician and distant cousin to President Obama who opposes his health-care plan. He wrote “First, Do No Harm.” Another is Dallas tea party leader Lorie Medina, who wrote “Community Organizing for Conservatives.”
Sales have been “modest,” Bellow says. The health-care pamphlet had been the best-selling, at 500 copies, until a satiric offering by Frank J. Fleming titled “Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything” sold 2,300 copies in its first week. Starting this month, Broadside will add longer works, called e-originals and running 20,000 to 30,000 words, to the series. First out of the blocks: “The New Quislings: How the International Left Used the Oslo Massacre to Silence Debate About Islam,” by Bruce Bawer.
In addition to 11 digital pamphlets, or e-books, Broadside will have released seven hardcovers and four paperbacks this year. The best-selling hardback, a book by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann titled “Revolt!: How to Defeat Obama and Repeal His Socialist Programs — A Patriot’s Guide,” has sold 60,000 copies, according to HarperCollins figures.
The imprint’s hardback sales figures are respectable, says Michael Coffey, co-editorial director of Publishers Weekly. “But it appears their e-book program has not found its stride yet. E-books do have some inherent problems — getting reviewed and getting noticed when they are not in bookstores. It might also indicate that this particular niche for their e-books — tea partyers — are not avid readers of digital books, at least not yet.”
It was Bellow’s instinct for moneymaking titles that strike a popular nerve that prompted Bruce Nichols, an old friend then at HarperCollins, to lure him into its fold in April 2008. “He understands the conservative movement better than anyone I know,” Nichols says. “He worked with an older generation of authors such as Norman Podhoretz and Charles Murray while nurturing a younger crowd including Dinesh D’Souza and Jonah Goldberg.”
Some critics note that HarperCollins lagged years behind other mainstream publishers, which had come out with conservative imprints starting in 2003. Random House’s Crown Forum has had success with Ann Coulter, Bill Gertz and Byron York; Simon & Schuster's Threshold has prospered with Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham; Penguin’s Sentinel has published winners by Mike Huckabee, Mona Charen and Larry Schweikart.
And overshadowing them all is the venerable Regnery Publishing, founded in 1947, which has pumped out conservative blockbusters for years, including William F. Buckley Jr.’s “God and Man at Yale” in 1951. “We were marketing to the tea party before there was a tea party,” says Regnery President and Publisher Marji Ross.
HarperCollins Senior Vice President Jonathan Burnham responds to those who criticize Broadside’s late entry into the game by saying Bellow was the right person at the right time. “Imprints form themselves around a particular talent,” he says. “Adam has great skills and connections in this area.”
Publishers Weekly’s Coffey thinks Bellow’s stretch for newer, edgier territory could pay off if the GOP moves away from a more moderate candidate, such as Mitt Romney, toward someone more amenable to the tea party. “Will the power of the tea partyers . . . return in full force? If they do, Broadside is atop the pile.”
Jim Campbell, chair of the political science department at the University at Buffalo, also thinks Bellow may be on to something with his tea party focus. “No press that I know of has made a commitment to serving that audience. People attracted to that viewpoint have always been out there, but the tea party label mobilized them and gave them a common identity.”
For Bellow, the challenge will be in finding 21st-century Buckleys amid a notoriously fickle group that defies easy categorization.
“The tea party people are averse to being treated as a market,” Bellow says. “They don’t want anyone in the movement to appoint themselves as a spokesman or leader. They don’t want anyone to profit off of it or make it a brand.” Essentially, he says, the movement is a collection of e-mail lists maintained by activists, “each one like prairie dogs in their holes.”
Bellow hired tea party activist Michael Leahy to search out new voices for the “Voices of the Tea Party” series. In addition to the Obama cousin, Leahy found Mark Kevin Lloyd, who claims to be a descendant of Patrick Henry and wrote about the tea partyers’ defeat of a Democratic incumbent in a hotly contested U.S. House race in Virginia. There is also “Constance Dogood,” an anonymous congressional staff member who contends that the freshman tea party class is being unwittingly compromised by the GOP establishment. “Tea Party people have learned that ‘reaching across the aisle’ is synonymous with ‘giving up conservative principles,’ ” she writes.
In the works is an attack on Hollywood unions, a 12-step “guide for the recovering Obama voter” and a treatise on the cliches of “bumper-sticker liberalism.”
Bellow, who originally wanted to call the imprint Bunker Hill, because of its combative tone and links to 18th-century pamphleteering, is convinced HarperCollins is moving in the right direction. “The market for stand-alone e-books is maturing,” he says. He thinks about them as “kindling” to build Broadside’s fire. “The object is to get yourself on the map. You publish a lot of stuff, some of which sticks, and others don’t.”
But he won’t publish just anything. Bellow, who remains a Democrat, calls himself a “noncomforming” conservative in that he’s sympathetic with many of the movement’s elements yet has little interest in the fortunes of the Republican Party. He draws limits at most social issues, gays and religion. Religion doesn’t sell well, he says. “I don’t want to bash Islam, either. I say no to those books.”
He also won’t publish books attacking gay marriage. “I don’t associate with conservatives for whom it’s an issue,” he says of those who oppose homosexuality. “I am, after all, a New Yorker.”
Bellow credits that New York background with giving him insight into how liberals and conservatives think. He grew up in the ultraliberal environs of the Upper West Side and subscribed to its precepts for the first 30 years of his life, until July 1987, when he watched Lt. Col. Oliver North’s famous testimony before a joint congressional committee on the Iran-contra affair.
“That is where I got off the liberal bus,” he recalls. “I concluded the Democrats in Congress were playing games. Reagan’s anti-communism resonated with me. I got that from my father. ”
He got a job that year with the Free Press (Macmillan, later Simon & Schuster) that put him to work finding young conservatives. As the books he edited began climbing the bestseller charts, Bellow was called on the carpet by his liberal friends and some of his friendships became strained. For his part, Bellow says he was amazed at the one-sided perceptions liberals had about those on the right. “Liberals don’t understand there are many stripes of conservatives.” And the ones they think they understand, he says, they caricature.
“Liberals, especially liberal Jews, are scared of conservative Christians,” says Bellow, who no longer practices Judaism. He launches into an example of the continuing dialogues he has with liberal friends: “They’ll say, ‘These people want a theocracy.’ I say: ‘Those people see themselves as victims of a secular invasion. They are defending themselves against you. They wouldn’t be doing this had you not banned prayer in schools. There wouldn’t be Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had you not taken over television and shown gay people kissing on the sitcoms. There were social changes foisted on sections of the country not ready for it.’ ”
He prides himself on possessing a toughness built up by many years of making such arguments in the hostile climate of liberal Manhattan, where, compared with points south, a conservative’s existence is more solitary.
“In Washington, conservatives are professional conservatives,” he says. “They do that for a living. People in New York make a living doing other things. They are more self-segregated in Washington. Here, you live among liberals. Your family and friends are liberal. New York conservatives are self-made.”
Bellow says he is finding this same self-made quality in the young scions of the right, whom he sees as less sectarian, and more comfortable with mass culture.
So he scours his in-box for the next big thing.
“I never really know what I’m looking for until I find it. It’s hard to say what that will be. You use your gut a lot. Something comes along that feels fresh. It’s like getting a window on a speeding train.”
Duin is a contributing writer for The Washington Post Magazine.