Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Carly Fiorina among the clients of the Javelin literary agency. This version has been updated.
Once, and not so long ago, running for political office was comparatively simple. Politicians assembled their teams, announced their candidacies and took to the campaign trail. Now, a presidential quest involves a PAC, a super PAC, a campaign army — and, of course, a book.
Oh, there has to be a book. If a candidate has already published one, perhaps it’s time for another. Books have become the telltale sign that someone in one office is serious about running for another.
Presidential Announcement Season, also known as 2015, marks the advent of an avalanche of political books, because nothing quite says “beach read” like learning about the early life or the recent policies of your favorite senator or governor. Instead of a chicken in every pot, a crowded field of candidates hopes for a book on every nightstand.
This year, a flock of politicians including, but not limited to, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul (and his wife, Kelley), Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Mike Lee, Claire McCaskill and Amy Klobuchar have volumes designed to educate readers (and potential voters) about their childhood influences and their visions for a far better tomorrow.
It makes sense, from the politicians’ standpoint. “The media universe has become much more fractured than it used to be,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. To a candidate “who wants to reach a potentially significant audience in his or her exact words,” writing a book “may seem appealing.” Also, there’s severe me-tooism. Since “almost every presidential candidate these days writes a book,” Beschloss says, many may write “to keep up with their rivals.”
What’s less fathomable is why publishers continue to acquire and produce these titles, many of which are, let’s face it, as tedious as the campaign trail, lacking in fresh insights or candor, carefully designed not to offend along the path to victory. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd snarkily wrote of Hillary Clinton’s 2003 memoir, “Living History,” it was “neither living nor history.”
Yet the publishing and political worlds appear awash in the belief that every candidate must have a memoir, a political tract or both, despite the lack of any indication that the public is clamoring to buy them. Books by politicians continue to appear with stunning regularity and frightening alacrity, not so much written as belched.
“Everyone wants to publish a great book by a president or would-be president,” explains John Sterling, an editor at Macmillan who has worked on many political tomes. In addition to Elizabeth Warren’s “A Fighting Chance,” published in 2014, he also edited Jimmy Carter’s “White House Diary” (2010), Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” (January 1992, six months before Bill Clinton chose Gore as his running mate) and Klobuchar’s forthcoming memoir.
But the great books are few and far between. “Personal Memoirs,” by Ulysses S. Grant, is generally accepted as one. It was published by Mark Twain and didn’t appear until after Grant’s death in 1885. Books such as Dwight Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe” (1948), John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” (1956) and Richard Nixon’s “Six Crises” (1962), all published before the authors were elected president, helped their future candidacies, Beschloss notes, because they were histories and unlike contemporary campaign books. Veteran editor Peter Osnos is partial to Tip O’Neill’s 1987 “Man of the House,” which he edited. Written with William Novak, long the best-selling co-author of choice, the memoir sold more than 400,000 copies.
The tome that’s the gateway drug of aspiring politician authors, though, is arguably Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” which first appeared when he was not yet an Illinois state senator. The memoir was republished in 2004 to critical and financial success after Obama delivered the Democratic National Convention keynote address. “Dreams” distinguished itself, publishing insiders agree, with its original story, its candor and a true writer’s voice. (Obama’s post-White House memoir is projected to sell for as much as $20 million, according to agent Andrew Wylie, and his wife’s for $12 million.)
“What applies to politicians applies to everyone doing a memoir,” says Simon & Schuster’s Priscilla Painton. “If it’s honest, if people recognize the voice is real, they’ll buy it.”
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A word about co-authors. While historians and professional writers can devote years to a book, most pols spend mere months. Their volumes are often produced while they work full-time jobs as elected officials — and second full-time jobs running for reelection — which can make the reader wonder how much time they actually devoted to writing.
Lots of elected officials have, of course, received professional help. Sometimes the co-author is listed on the cover, as on McCaskill’s forthcoming memoir. Sometimes the ghostwriter gets no credit at all, as was the case with Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” (1996). She accorded more credit to her three-man “book team” in 2014’s “Hard Choices” — albeit on Page 597 of the 635-page memoir. And sometimes, as in the case of JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage,” authorship may be debated forever.
Still, many politicians do put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, to produce their own work. According to Sterling, Warren and Klobuchar wrote their books. Eisenhower apparently penned most of “Crusade,” and Carter has produced his own library of 25 titles, including “Why Not the Best?,” which came out before his 1976 election to introduce him to voters.
On the whole, however, “you can count the number of politicians in D.C. who have the ability to write on one hand,” says Keith Urbahn, president of the local Javelin literary agency. “In general, we tend to avoid books by politicians. They tend not to sell. They tend not to be written in their voice and are filled with platitudes you can get on C-SPAN.”
That said, Urbahn isn’t doing a particularly good job of avoiding books by politicians. This year, his new titles by Republican clients include presidential candidate Cruz (“A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America”) , possible presidential candidate Jindal (“American Will: The Forgotten Choices that Changed Our Republic”), and non-presidential-candidate Lee (“Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document”).
If recent history is any guide, none of these books are likely to be confused with literature. But it’s apparently hard to convince a politician of that.
“Every member of Congress believes their life story is a bestseller,” Rep. Steve Israel says. The New York Democrat took a different tack from most of his colleagues by writing the 2014 satirical novel “The Global War on Morris” instead. “I tell them maybe their books will be a bestseller in their home.”
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There’s little question that for every bestseller — Warren’s “A Fighting Chance” was one — there are many failures. “There is a heck of a lot of gambling at the heart of publishing,” says Macmillan’s Sterling. “Most publishers are .200 hitters at best.”
In the game of throwing titles onto the marketplace to see which stick, few do. A March 2014 BuzzFeed story headlined “Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End of a Conservative Gold Rush” noted that Jeb Bush’s “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution,” published the previous year, had sold fewer than 4,600 copies. But dismal sales aren’t limited to conservatives. Any politician can produce a dud.
Andrew Cuomo’s “All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life” was published in October on the eve of the New York governor’s second-term election. At the time, it must have seemed like a smart move to the folks at HarperCollins — the memoir of a popular governor who might consider a White House run. Cuomo performed decidedly better at the polls than he did in the marketplace, selling 3,000 copies. But he may have been a winner in other ways. According to tax returns, he collected more than $565,000 for the book, or $180 a copy.
That, however, is the exception. The publisher’s investment and goals for most titles are much more modest. Sometimes, publishers are content with strong regional sales, courting a vital base of constituents. They also rely on campaigns or friends of candidates distributing books at events — a 300-page hardcover party favor.
But most notable is the political book as trial balloon. One of the strongest motives for politicians today to write books is to test the waters for a future run for office. This is true even when they deny any such plans.
This summer, McCaskill and Klobuchar will publish memoirs within two weeks of each other. Although neither Midwestern Democrat has mentioned running for higher office, this hasn’t stopped speculation, with The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza asking, “What exactly is Klobuchar up to?” If she’s not a presidential candidate now, perhaps she’s thinking of “at some point down the line — 2020 or 2024 — inserting herself into the presidential/vice presidential conversation,” Cillizza wrote.
Perhaps. But the publishers had their own reasons for acquiring the books. Simon & Schuster’s Painton says she bought McCaskill’s forthcoming “Plenty Ladylike” because the senator “is so blunt on the page, it’s scary. She talks honestly about her mistakes, her ambition, her divorce.”
Sterling signed Klobuchar’s “The Senator Next Door” because he found the senator “quite different. She wants to inspire people to become a part of the political process,” he says.
And in publishing, as in so much of life, timing is everything. Klobuchar, who won her 2012 reelection campaign by almost 35 points, will be able to campaign full time for her memoir when it’s published Aug. 25. The Senate will be in recess.
“More importantly,” her editor notes, “it’s just two days before the Minnesota State Fair.”