Washington lawyer Robert Barnett is one of the premier authors’ representatives in the world for political books. His clients include Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Dick Cheney. Barnett, who’s a partner at D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly, tells New York Book Forum why he believes political books remain so popular. He says over email, “Political books sell because politics is fascinating (and sometimes maddening) to many. The personalities, the issues, and the twists and turns are often more surprising than the best of fiction.”
Barnett’s client President Barack Obama writes in A Promised Land, “I would never fully rid myself of the sense of reverence I felt whenever I walked into the Oval Office, the feeling that I entered not an office, but a sanctum of democracy.”
Political books like A Promised Land are nothing new – though it certainly feels like they’ve recently become more prominent. Plato published The Republic in 375 BC. In his seminal and most famous work, the Greek philosopher wrote about political theory, justice, and a fair city-state. It’s considered one of the greatest political books of all time.
In recent years, there’s been an explosion of political books, particularly books authored by politicians and former presidents. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, have all dabbled in the art of the political book.
What Political Books Can We Expect Soon?
Former Vice President Mike Pence’s So Help Me God will be published on November 15, 2022 by Simon & Schuster. In the autobiography, Pence reflects on growing up in Columbus, Indiana, and serving as the 48th Vice President of the United States. The book also promises the chronicling of “President Trump’s severing of their relationship on January 6, 2021, when Pence kept his oath to the Constitution.”
In September, Doubleday’s The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017 – 2021 will be published. Authors Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times, and Susan Glasser, a reporter for The New Yorker, examine the years when “Trump went to war with Washington.” And journalist for The New York Times, Maggie Haberman, wrote Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, which will be published in October by Penguin Random House (PRH).
Another hotly anticipated title is Volodymyr Zelensky in His Own Words, published by Pegasus Books in October 2022 and distributed by Simon & Schuster. The book, edited by Lisa Rogak and Daisy Gibbons, offers an inside look at Ukrainian President Zelensky’s thoughts on war, climate change, and more, amid the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
In September, PRH will publish former Newsweek correspondent Jonathan Darman’s Becoming FDR. The house will also publish Selfie Democracy:The New Digital Politics of Disruption and Insurrection by Elizabeth Losh. In PRH’s We Dissent: Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan on Dobbs V. Jackson, The Supreme Court’s Decision Banning Abortion, abortion – one of the most hot-button political issues in the United States – will be examined as a Constitutional right. In New Yorker writer Luke Mogelson’s The Storm Is Here, the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 is detailed with precision and scrutiny.
As political books continue to be published en masse, the industry feeds a reading public hungry for answers and insight during a time of uncertainty and derision.
When Did the Trend Take Off?
With the explosive sales of Obama-penned books like Barack’s A Promised Land and Michelle’s Becoming, it’s no wonder so many politicians and politically adjacent figures are getting in the political book game. A Promised Land, published in November 2020 by Crown at PRH, was the bestselling book of 2020. Publishers Weekly reported the book moved 2.6 million copies in six weeks. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, also published by Crown in 2018, sold 3.4 million copies in the same period.
Bob Woodward’s Rage, which chronicled the Trump presidency amid the pandemic, was another 2020 bestseller, selling over 1 million copies. 2021’s You Never Forget Your First, a cheekily titled biography of George Washington written by Alexis Coe, was an instant New York Times bestseller. As we continue to see an appetite for these kinds of books, the more publishers will work to meet that demand.
You’ll find “best political books” lists in every corner of the literary internet. Book Riot, the largest independent literary site in North America, outlines the “25 Must-Read Books to Understand Politics and Political Issues.” And BookAuthority.com has rounded up its list of the “20 Best Politics Books of All Time.” And if you’re studying politics, Oxford Scholastica Academy in Oxford, UK, believes these are the “10 Books Every Politics Student Should Read.” And Esquire says that these fifteen titles are “The Best Political Nonfiction Books Ever.”
To Skew Left or to Skew Right? The Importance of Non-Partisan Publishing
With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that publishers are eager to publish the next big political book. It’s worth noting that the political orientation of publishers must be conveyed as neutral. Therefore, you’ll find titles written by politicians across party lines, sometimes to the frustration of a publishing house’s employees.
Protests and walkouts are a regular practice for controversial titles by non-political authors like Woody Allen. Hachette Book Group had planned to publish Allen’s book, which was later canceled after an employee walkout protesting its publication.
In the case of “right-wing provocateur” and Breitbart News editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, his contract with Simon & Schuster for his book Dangerous was canceled due to overwhelming outrage over sexually related comments Yiannopoulos made on a podcast. At a rally outside of the publishing house’s office, Yiannopoulos declared, “They have to pay for silencing conservatives.” In 2017, he sued Simon & Schuster for $10 million over his canceled book deal, but ultimately withdrew the lawsuit.
Striving for non-partisan publishing is essential for the industry, which is centered primarily in a “liberal bastion” of New York City. That’s why you’ll find PRH publishing books by both the Obamas, as well as political commentator Ann Coulter, whose books have provocative titles like If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans. That book became a number one New York Times bestseller for PRH. In October, Simon & Schuster will distribute a Post Hill Press book titled The Most Dangerous President in History. This Nick Adams book examines President Joe Biden’s tenure and politics. Of course, editors have their biases, but most want to be fair and balanced, and promote freedom of expression.
Some literary agents and lawyers aim to be equally non-partisan. For example, Robert Barnett’s clients include politicians across party lines. Barnett has brokered stratospheric deals, like the joint book deal for Barack and Michelle Obama, which reportedly “topped out at $65 million,” reports The Washington Post. The Post reports how the jaw-dropping deal was facilitated by “Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who has represented Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Their books became bestsellers, of course. But expectations might run higher for the Obamas, who have a pop-culture celebrity and reputation for storytelling.”
Commentators vs. Presidents vs. Trump’s Niece: Who Writes a Better Book?
The term “political book” can have broad interpretations. Generally, most people agree that it’s a book covering politics, political affairs, or the life of a politician, either as a biography, autobiography, or as a memoir.
Some books narrowly fall under the umbrella of the genre. For instance, psychologist Dr. Mary Trump’s tell-all book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, about her uncle, President Donald Trump, pulled back the veil shrouding her infamous family. The book garnered some serious media attention, including an appearance by Dr. Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Political journalists and political commentators – like investigative journalism titan Bob Woodward or former The New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan (whose selected writing was published by Simon & Schuster last year in Out on a Limb) – offer a more macro view than a politician writing about politics and political life might have. Woodward, for his part, shows no signs of slowing down. (Woodward – alongside former Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein – will be honored with the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement later this year.) To date, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has written 21 books on American politics and current affairs. Over half of those books hit bestseller lists. (Woodward is another esteemed client of Robert Barnett.)
Journalist and political biographer Robert Caro is revered for his reporting on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, about whom he has written extensively in books like The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) and Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson); both were published by Vintage. Caro also wrote The Power Broker, which details the influence of New York urban planner Robert Moses. That book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. In 2020, Kirkus Reviews reported that Caro was hard at work on his fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson series.
How the Current Climate Impacts Political Books Production
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic touched nearly every industry, and book publishing was not immune. Apart from work-from-home directives, manufacturing and supply chain issues also forced changes to the publication of different books.
Worker shortages, printer delays, and shipping delays have all had a significant impact on the publication of books – political books included – amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the fourth quarter of 2021, The New York Times reported on the state of pandemic publishing, writing, “Publishers are postponing some release dates because books aren’t where they need to be. Older books are also being affected as suppliers struggle to replenish them.”
With books that are especially timely, as some political books are, it has been an even greater challenge to produce hot titles on time. Political books must be topical and timely, and this can present significant challenges to the publishers – ensuring that a book is authoritative, topical, and timely.
Regardless of present, past, and future challenges faced by publishers publishing political books, one thing is sure: Political books are here to stay.