How the Right Rigs the Book Game
Progressive authors face an uphill battle against conservatives that understand the value of the bestseller list.
Fair warning: This post is going to end with a pitch to preorder a signed, discounted copy of Battling the Big Lie which comes out one week from today (puke). But first I want to make the case for why I am so persistent in my pitches.
When I started researching for my forthcoming book about how the Right Wing hijacks the media, I expected to learn about their efforts on cable television (Fox, OAN), radio (Rush Limbaugh), and the Internet (Ben Shapiro). I was surprised to learn that the Right Wing also placed a huge premium on using books to promote their message and dictate the four corners of the political conversation.
As an overly competitive nutjob, I am closely tracking the New York Times Bestseller List in preparation for the release of my own book. I was surprised to find out a few weeks ago that former Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly was neither dead nor in permanent exile. Instead, his book was #1 on the list. A few months ago, Ben Shapiro, Mark Levin, and Jesse Watters were all in the top 10 at the same time. Kellyanne Conway is now out hawking her largely pro-Trump book and will undoubtedly be near the top of the list next week.
Now, of course, Republicans are older and more likely to buy books. Just like they are more likely to watch cable television. But the success of Right Wing books is not an accident. It’s all part of a very specific, well-funded effort to push Right Wing messaging and create the illusion of wide-spread support for discredited ideas.
How It Works
The Right has two primary methods for gaming the bestseller list. The first was pioneered in the Nixon Era.
In 1971, TV Guide writer Edith Efron released News Twisters — a book that claimed to prove liberal bias in the media. Using very rudimentary means, Efron analyzed 100,000 words of broadcast television coverage during the 1968 campaign between Nixon and then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. According to Efron, only 8.7 percent of the words about Nixon were deemed positive while more than 50 percent of the words about Humphrey were positive. Efron was not a well-meaning, unbiased academic. Her research was funded by a conservative foundation.
President Richard Nixon then ordered his aides to make sure the book ended up on the New York Times Bestseller List. Using campaign funds, they bought every copy they could find. Nixon understood that if Efron’s book was a bestseller, it would garner more attention—and better placement in every bookstore in America. Efron became a frequent guest on news programs and was often quoted in newspapers. Nixon’s effort went a long way towards cementing the fallacious idea that the media is inherently biased against conservatives. This “Big Lie” was the foundation upon which the conservative media was built.
These explicit efforts to hijack the New York Times Bestseller List have continued unabated since the Nixon Era. Back in 2020, Donald Trump Jr’s MAGA memoir debuted at #1. On one level, that’s not a surprise. Trump Jr. is the son of the former President, a frequent guest on Right Wing media, and a big draw on the GOP fundraising circuit. On another level, he is a moron who lacks any depth of thought and is a festering carbuncle on American life. A few weeks later, the New York Times reported that Trump’s place at the top of the Bestseller List was secured via a $100,000 bulk purchase by the Republican National Committee.
The dumb apple doesn’t fall far from the dumb tree. The tremendous success of Trump Sr.’s Art of the Deal was also the product of gaming the system. As the New Republic wrote:
The story of how Trump all but assured his book reached the best-seller list was first revealed by Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump executive who detailed his boss’s self-dealing in his 1991 tell-all, Trumped! According to O’Donnell, who oversaw marketing and served as president and chief operating officer of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino from 1987 to 1990, the Trump Organization helped boost The Art of the Deal by purchasing tens of thousands of copies on its own. In his book, O’Donnell recounts buying 1,000 copies of The Art of the Deal to sell in the Plaza’s gift shop—only to be told by fellow executive Steve Hyde that it wasn’t nearly enough. “You’ve got to increase your order,” Hyde told him. “Donald will go nuts if you don’t order more books.” How many more? Four thousand copies, O’Donnell was told.
Similarly, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $400,000 on copies of Representative Dan Crenshaw’s book. Right Wing think tanks and billionaires buy the books written by other MAGA personalities and Republican politicians. Ted Cruz even had his own campaign spend more than $100,000 buying copies of Cruz’s own book, which is the literary equivalent of asking oneself to prom.
And the Trumps are not alone in this regard. As Vanity Fair reported last year:
In 2020, 17 books on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list have scored their spots by dint of bulk buys. All but two have been written by Trumpworld superstars: Trump Jr.; founder of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk; Glenn Beck; conservative commentator Dave Rubin; Fox News host Pete Hegseth; Dinesh D’Souza; Newt Gingrich; Freedom Center founder David Horowitz; Ben Shapiro; Sean Hannity; Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Candace Owens; Jeanine Pirro; the American Conservative editor Rod Dreher; and Ted Cruz.
The second method uses the massive Right Wing media megaphone to pitch the book to the audience. This was a strategy Trump and Fox used to fight back against the Mueller investigation and his various impeachments. Any book that pushed Trump’s narrative — no matter how conspiracy theory-laden or schlocky — was promoted by Trump on Twitter. The authors were booked as guests on Fox and other Right Wing outlets.
Why it Matters
At the end of the day, the Right Wing book machine is a small part of the larger MAGA megaphone. Still, they invest time, energy, and money; nevertheless demonstrating they understand two truths about the media ecosystem that elude a lot of Democrats. First, you want to create a self-sustaining media apparatus. Trump’s promotion of the books favorable towards him made these books more successful and created an incentive for more and more people to write more and more books to advance the MAGA message.
Second, the quantity of the content being pumped into the ecosystem is more important than the quality. Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist, famously called this strategy “flooding the zone with shit.” I have read some of these pro-Trump books and Bannon’s terminology is precise.
I don’t write all of this to suggest that the Democratic National Committee should buy 100,000 copies of my book or forthcoming books by Jason Kander, Cody Keenan or Lis Smith (although none of us would object if they did). I don’t suggest Joe Biden or Barack Obama tweet about our books (but they should!). Instead, I am laying out the challenges progressive authors, media companies, and personalities are up against. Because there is no existing operation to prop up sales, books from progressives tend to boom and bust depending on the political environment. They sold well with Trump in office and sales lagged with Trump gone. And if this sounds like one big pitch to convince you to buy our books, you aren’t 100 percent wrong.
I have seven days to prove to the bookstores and media bookers that there is an audience for a progressive book. And the folks at the world famous Strand Bookstore are helping me do it by offering a discount on signed copies from now until midnight on June 7th. You can access that offer HERE.
A portion of the proceeds for every preorder of Battling the Big Lie will be donated to the Texas Library Association’s Whitten Intellectual Freedom Fund which is fighting efforts to ban books. Texas is ground zero in this fight and they need all the help we can muster.
Twelve Publishing has generously offered to match my donation for the next 1000 preorders. If you already pre-ordered the book (thank you!), I will donate from your purchase as well. If you would like a signed bookplate, you can upload your proof of purchase HERE.
Thank you as always for your consideration and support.
My only surprise: since I live in NE Florida, I know many MAGA folk, many retired, as I am. I have been in their houses, over the years. I have never seen a book in most of these homes. It is remarkable the first time you notice it. I mean, how do you not have books?
Years ago my wife and I were talking to another couple. He had expressed admiration for the movie Unbroken. I mentioned we had the book which was much better than the movie, if he wanted to borrow it. His wife said, a bit proudly, that this 70 year-old retired bank executive had not read a book since high school.
What do they do with all these bulk purchases? Build seawalls against the rising water they refuse to address?
I have bought a copy of your book but will buy two more to send to a couple of friends who read.
While I am totally sympathetic to the importance of your need to “play the game” as it currently exists, I am appalled that the New York Times - and other best seller lists - do not disclose the fact and impact of these bulk sales on the rankings. The industry must be able to identify bulk sales. Why can’t that be publicized too?