Publishers Bet Big on 'Obama as Hero'

By David Paul Kuhn
|  Sunday, Nov 30, 2008  |  Updated 1:17 PM EDT
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Publishers Bet Big on 'Obama as Hero'

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Publishers are hoping that Obamania will spur book sales with the President-elect as the subject.

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The publishing industry is betting on Barack Obama like no president in decades. Since Election Day alone, more than half a dozen book deals have been signed to exploit Obamania.

Two dozen books in the works range from the serious to the silly. There are retrospective tick-tocks on how Obama won office and prospective looks at his first year in the White House. There is a biography on Obama’s father, a compilation of essays on Obama and race, and others tilting toward the celebratory with photographic montages. There are children’s books, of course, and a style guide on Michelle Obama, framing the down to earth, future first-lady as a latter day Jackie Onassis.

With few exceptions, the books share a tone of celebration and optimism, and a view of Obama as hero. To borrow from the president-elect, perhaps some hope-mongering is afoot. In contrast, President George W. Bush, who reportedly is having difficulty finding a publisher for a book he hopes to write, has been savaged in many recent tomes.

“The American reading public appreciates great stories. They like heroes and they like villains,” said Gail Ross, a top political literary agent. As for Obama, “At least for now, he's a hero. Bush books worked when he became a villain.”

Tim Duggan, a vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, said that the Obama book boom reflects the president-elect’s “honeymoon period.”

“No matter what the state of the book industry, or the state of the economy, the idea of the new African American president coming into office is exciting,” said Duggan, who is editing a retrospective on the 2008 campaign by reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

If these are hard economic times, they are especially difficult in the literary world. Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced this week that it was suspending all acquisitions of new manuscripts. Borders Group Inc., the second- largest U.S. bookseller, has fired 20 percent of its workforce and reported this week that third quarter losses were below Wall Street estimates.

But publishers are gambling that the interest in all things Obama will boost sales now and have literary staying power, since many of the new titles will not hit bookstores for year or more.

“Every time an editor picks a book they are making a bet,” Ross said. In a nod to Obama’s campaign theme, she added: “Instead of hope we can believe in, it's hope we can bet on.” 

The book world’s interest in Obama is just part of a larger Obama industry.

There are coins with his face and commemorative plates and Washington inauguration vacation packages. HBO recently purchased a documentary that tracks Obama's campaign. NBC is promoting a DVD on its cable channel that unapologetically plays off Obama’s “Yes We Can” mantra, urging viewers to “Watch MSNBC and experience the power of change.”

Obama’s own books — "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams From My Father," which earned him more than $4 million last year — are currently number one and two, respectively, on the New York Times bestseller list and are helping to feed the book frenzy. Number three on the list is a Time magazine book, “Change We Can Believe In,” with a forward by Obama.

“A lot of people, at least one chunk of the American population, made him a best-selling author before they made him a nominee,” said Priscilla Painton, editor in chief of Simon and Schuster. “There is more interest because of who his, the history he made, and the kind of campaign he ran. I think some part of the voting population is used to reading about him because they started discovering him in book form.”

Obama is driving sales for others, too. The Time’s Children’s bestseller list is topped by “Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope.” His embrace of "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which describes how Abraham Lincoln filled his Cabinet with opponents and is considered a guide for some of Obama’s Cabinet choices, enflamed interest in the book and led to fresh print runs in the hundreds of thousands. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter got a boost for his book on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days as president, "The Defining Moment," after reports that Obama was reading it.

 

About a week after the election, Alter finalized a new deal to pen an account of Obama’s first year in office. Promotional materials promise it will delve into "the reality of hope" and "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object in the form of Washington, D.C., and the status quo.”

New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza also is writing a book about Obama’s first year in office, while campaign narratives are underway by Newsweek's Richard Wolffe and The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson. “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” by PBS’s Gwen Ifill, is scheduled to appear in time for Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Mandi Norwood, the former editor of Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan UK, is writing a style guide of Michelle Obama that will offer “tips on how to achieve Obama's iconic style.”

Not every title hitting the stands is positive. The book “Audacity of Deceit: Barack Obama’s War on American Values,” by conservative author Bra O’Leary, is a hot seller, particularly for readers tired of the adulation surrounding Obama.

But for the most part, people are turning away from more negative books — and not just about Obama, but about Bush, too.

“There was a period of time when everybody wanted to read everything that was an indictment of Bush, and an indictment of Iraq,” said Ross, the  literary agent. “Today it's the opposite narrative. We're betting on the potential of Obama as hero.”

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