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« Times and Journal Price Hikes | Main | Elsewhere »

July 19, 2007

Politician Books

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't bother reading politician books, though once upon a time I did.

When I was in my twenties or thereabouts I'd buy and read a book by a politician (or his ghost-writer) or perhaps a politician's biography or autobiography. This activity was inspired by John F. Kennedy's presidential run, which I ardently supported. (I reached voting age less than a week before the 1960 election.)

By "politician books" I'm referring to books related to the current election cycle or a future one. Such books tend to be either puff-pieces or hatchet-jobs motivated by a desire to mold public opinion. This is different from biographies or studies of politicians whose time has passed. For example, JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been gone long enough that their presidencies and related issues are becoming hard to tie to current political matters. That is, they are now the stuff of History (though still subject to the biases of historians). Ronald Reagan is entering the transition zone between relevant and historical. So might Jimmy Carter but for the fact that he's still alive and searching the world for dictators and America-haters to embrace.

One reason I abandoned the genre is because I learned that politician books can be pretty deceitful. In particular, the 1960-vintage pro-Kennedy books ignored the seriousness of the man's health problems -- information that came fully to light only a few years ago.

Another reason is that the Internet offers easy access to gobs of information on biographical details, positions on issues and so forth that weren't so available in the past. In other words, I have a pretty fair perception of politics and politicians and believe reading books would largely be a waste of my time.

The rest of the world seems to operate differently, if the piles of politician books at Borders and Barnes & Noble are any indication. Given the high likelihood of pro / con bias and the easy access to information, why are politician books still being published?

Some possible reasons:

  • Some such books actually sell well and earn a profit for the publisher.

  • Perhaps some money changes hands under a table and a politician's campaign gets a boost by having their man presented in a "prestigious" setting -- a book.

  • A publisher friendly to a candidate will okay publication of a prestige-building book even though it will lose money: call it a form of campaign contribution.

Perhaps Michael, who knows book-trade stuff, can give us the skinny.

And who buys such books? And actually reads them?

Doubtless a few pimply-faced enthusiasts such as I was in my JFK phase. And probably political staffers and consultants looking for stray insights and opposition ammunition. Then there might be a scattering of folks who prefer to get most of their information from books while smugly feeling that they are going beyond the call of civic duty thanks to the number of pages they're turning.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at July 19, 2007




Comments

Proud to say I've never bought a book in the politicians'-book-genre, and have never read more than a few pages in any such book. Don't we get more than our fill of the bastards from looking at the newspapers?

As for publishing-world hearsay ... It really is a mystery why so many of them get published. A few of the books sell hugely -- Bill 'n' Hill both did very well, for instance. (Sorry to say I don't know if they did well enough to justify the publishers' investment, though.) But most of them tank terribly. There can't be many genres with such a bad track record.

So why do the publishers continue publishing them? I've yakked the question over with friends in the biz, and no one can make total sense out of it.

What seems to be the case is is that a couple of factors come into play. One is glamor. Hard to believe it, but some people find politicians and political power a turn-on. Wow, you're moving in real corridors of power.

You wouldn't think book-publishing higher-ups would be impressed, but many of them are. Publish a book by a political figure and you've got access to those circles, or at least you get the rush of brushing up against them. It's a thrill, in other words. (Same reason why smart, tough businessmen keep making runs at Hollywood despite how insane that usually is in a business-sense -- it's glamorous and a turn-on.)

Another factor is the buzz of the moment. Gingrich is hot? Sign him up! There's an auction? Let me in on it! Prices spiral out of control ... Book publishing is somewhat more news-driven than it once was ... Of course, two or five years later when Gingrich finally delivers the book people will be fed up with him. They've moved on to caring about and following someone else.

If I were put in charge of a book publishing house, one of the first things I'd do would be to forbid anyone in my employ from signing up a politician's book.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 19, 2007 2:12 PM



My guess would be that most election cycle books are coffee table fare bought for display: to show guests that you are a member in good standing of the club, be it liberal or conservative. Speaking from personal experience I grew up in a household in which FDR was a god. So there was the Harry Hopkins book and the Harold J. Ickes book and some groaner by Eleanor. None of these books were ever opened let alone read. They were just there, signs as it were that my parents were right thinking people. For a later generation it was Camelot and books authored by JFK's circle. Reagan true believers. Bill and Hill acolytes. There are enough chattering class households out there - not actively political but wanting to show their bona fides, make a statement, tastefully - to provide a market for this stuff.

Posted by: ricpic on July 19, 2007 5:03 PM



I don't know if this is still done, but I'm told that in the past there were instances of these books being used as a fundraising tool, to get around some reporting requirements.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 19, 2007 7:08 PM



I can't prove, but suspect, that all the campaign books/autobiographies that come out when someone's running for high office are subsidized by the candidate or a PAC, so the publisher is guaranteed a profit.

What I can't understand is the unceasing flood of biographies of a particular individual, even when there have been more than enough books written abouth them in recent times to have mined the subject thoroughly. I have in mind Richard Nixon. In just the last five years or so there must have been at least half a dozen books about him. Most recently there have been two more and I just read that Rick Perlstein has one coming out. My question: where is the Nixon love to sustain these books? Yeah, Nixon was a famous/infamous president who presided over a recent period in which major events transpired. But he was an unempathetic, uncharismatic man who was unloved by the public when he was alive and was forced to resign in disgrace. How many people want to spnd $25 and days or weeks of their life to immerse themselves in the bummer that was Nixon and his times? If you are a Nixonphile, haven't you already read enough about him already? Who really wants/needs another Nixon bio?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 19, 2007 7:18 PM



Hey, ricpic, you're on to something. I read somewhere that Mein Kampf was a fixture in "proper German" households of the thirties...but no one ever bothered to read it. They merely displayed it.

Posted by: Bob Grier on July 19, 2007 7:19 PM



It's amazing how big publishers are gobbling up memoirs ghostwritten or semiwritten by politicians. By the way, let me recommend one gem of a book: Robert Reich's Locked in the Cabinet . One of the most entertaining books I'd read.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on July 20, 2007 2:54 AM




The genre of current events books is a very debased one, whether they are candidates's biographies or not (although candidates' biographies tend to suffer the most, mainly because of they dynamics described in "The Boys in the bus": if your subject becomes President, then you get the prestigious White House beat, if not, it is back to the nitty gritty with you. How critical are you going to be of your future meal ticket?)

One good exercise for putting pundits into perspective is to buy outdated books, follow their line of reasoning and look at their predicitons. How many of those predictions come true? It is very enlightenting to see how often they are wrong, and makes you wary to buy any predicitions in the present.

(I recall, when I was a teenager reading an article explaining how China could never shake the Russian influence and was doomed to be a puppet of the Kremlin. It was very well reasoned, as far as I could tell... I recall, later on when Edith Efron and others were campaigning against bias in the media, and she published an angry column denouncing the liberal bias that made commentators call Amwar Sadat a moderate, when she demostrated that he was a left-wing extremist - a couple of years before Sadat went to Tel Aviv to make peace with Israel)

The way we deal with political commentators and pundits, we would not dream of doing to racing sheets. But then, in horse races it is our money we are wagering, so we have no patience with people who give you the wrong tips.

Posted by: Adriana on July 20, 2007 2:25 PM



Barack Obama's first book (from before he became a politician), "Dreams From My Father", was extraordinarily good. Really well written and revealing in many ways. A fine, subtle take on race.

Posted by: mq on July 21, 2007 4:58 PM






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