Whatever you think he’s done for (or to) America, Donald Trump has been great for books.
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the trend towards political non-fiction in the U.S. seems to have slowed a bit in 2019 but we would be remiss if we didn’t spend some time staring slack-jawed at the sales figures of the whole Trump era to date.
Hilary Clinton’s What Happened, her account of losing an election to Trump, sold 300,000 copies in its first week on offer. That’s huge.
Reporter Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the first good glimpse inside Trump’s White House, debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, brought 200,000 sales in its first week and 1.7 million before it had been on stands a month, making it the fastest-selling book in the history of Macmillan, a publishing house founded in 1843.
Former FBI director James Comey blew Clinton and Wolff out of the water with A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, which topped 600,000 copies its first week.
Despite coming relatively late to the party, veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward unloaded 1.1 million copies of Fear in his first week, good enough for fastest opener in Simon & Schuster’s century of operations.
And all of those books were stomped by Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which managed to sell 725,000 copies in a single day.
Becoming was released in November 2018 and by March 2019 it had sold ten million copies. It is getting talked about as the biggest selling memoir in history though no one seems to know who owns the record.
Michelle’s got a reasonable shot at earning out the $65-million advance that Penguin Random House for both Obama memoirs, which was reputedly the largest advance in the history of literature, and Michelle’s book was thought to be the riskier of the two. And, no, they’re not Trump books, but there’s nothing like four years of Trump to stoke the Obama nostalgia.
(Speaking of Barack, his 2006 campaign primer The Audacity of Hope and his 1995 debut memoir Dreams From my Father sold 7.5 million copies combined. His White House memoir, due soon, will need to deliver if he’s going to emerge from Michelle’s shadow.)
There have been more Trump-era surprises. Mark Levin’s Unfreedom of the Press, a book about liberal media bias by a Fox News contributor, sold 300,000 copies in its first month and spent four weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Yes, a book yelling ‘CNN Sucks’ has been a national bestseller for a month.
A redacted version of The Mueller Report (above), available free to the public on a government website, was printed in softcover by three different publishers and racked up 357,000 in sales in a month, good enough for another New York Times bestseller.
Weirder still, a pocket version of the Constitution of the United States, available all over the internet, has been a consistent bestseller on Amazon for the last three years.
Weirdest of all, Trump has proved himself an avid reader of books about himself, inspiring a sort of book club with his tweets. That illustration at the top is a collection of his recommendations. More about it here.
The Trump boom is slowing—the latest NYT bestseller list has Prince: The Beautiful Ones, not politics, in top spot—but it is far from over. Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse by the actor John Lithgow, and The Plot Against the President, by investigative journalist Lee Smith who “exposes a deep state operation against the president, and the American people.”
They will be joined, no doubt soon, by A Warning, by Anonymous, the secretive senior official who made a splash sometime back by claiming in the Times to be part of the “resistance” to Trump within the administration. As of Friday morning, it was the number one book on Amazon.
All this activity, on the whole, has been good for the book business. But it has also been disruptive as hell. We spoke to an editor at a major New York house this week who said that a lot of publishers aren’t going to bother releasing big non-Trump non-fiction books in 2020, an election year. Nothing will get attention from media unless it has a direct bearing on the campaign. Publishers are thus hoarding non-Trump books for 2021, so much so that 2021 is already packed and a lot of projects are being pushed back to 2022 and beyond.
Meanwhile, in Canada, political books are dead as civility. We cite the nominees for last year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. There was a book about environmentalism told from the perspective of one huge Douglas fir, another on pipeline protests, another on hydro-electric power protests, one telling the story of a Syrian refugee, and Rachel Giese’s Boys: What it Means to Become a Man, which won the prize.
All of these are fine books. All are about issues that have political dimensions but they are not about politics, per se. They are not about politicians and the institutions of governance. In fact, the authors of the pipeline and the big hydro books, both of which are pressing federal issues, made a point of doing the bulk of their reporting outside of Ottawa.
That’s fine. It works for these books. My point is we have a dearth of what I’ll call conventional political books. Biographies of politicians. Memoirs by politicians. Diaries by politicians. Histories of political parties and elections. Books about the House of Commons or the Senate or the Prime Minister’s Office, or the anthropology of Ottawa and federal politics. The few that are available—in recent weeks we’ve mentioned two biographies of Trudeau released this year—are passing with hardly a trace.
The exception, and God bless her for it, is retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s memoir, Truth Be Told. It’s not particularly revelatory but it is intelligent and readable and rare. Our justices do not write books (this one also wrote a fiction thriller, which she is signing above). Maybe it will be the start of a literary renewal in the capital and not a last gasp.