April 19, 2018

OK, but are Trump books really selling as much as it feels like they are?


Disclaimer: the methodology herein is, at best, dubious.

But after reading Jennifer Calfas’s report for TIME that the top three best-selling books in 2018 so far have all been related to the Trump Administration and registering a “yes, duh” response—all any of us consumes, it seems obvious, is Trump Trump Trump (gross)—I thought it would be interesting to see if there might be any similar patterns in the first months of 2017 and 2016, or if the emphasis on politics in 2018 was very different from 2017 and 2016. (Anecdotally — our own experience has been that, yes, Trump books sometimes become bestsellers.)

It typically takes at least a year to publish a book — often longer for non-fiction projects since publishers usually buy those books on proposal, rather than on the basis of a finished manuscript. So it might take, say, a year or two for the author to actually write the book, and then at least another year before it’s on sale. I point this out because, while the Presidential campaign was underway in the first months of 2016, the books that were coming out then had been, in general, written long before that. Likewise, the books published at the start of the Trump administration would have, at best, been written in the early stages of the campaign. What I’m saying is that in some ways, the book market registers a delayed reaction.

Anyway, I looked up the top four books on the New York Times bestseller lists for hardcover non-fiction every week for January, February, and March of 2016, 2017, and 2018. It took a minute. The New York Times list is in no way definitive—that’s a Moby for another day—but it’s not a bad way to gauge sales and impact. Another caveat: This is a totally arbitrary set of months. January through mid-April is all we have to work with for 2018, but typically the pre-holiday-shopping fall months are when publishers are likely to release their biggest books. A look at fall 2018 vs. fall 2017 (when Hillary Clinton’s What Happened came out) might actually be more revealing in terms of the grip Trump has on readers’ attention.

But given what we have, a number of things were interesting.

The first was that the only title to maintain a top-four spot on this list between January 3 and March 27, 2016, was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. That book was originally slated for an October 2015 publication, but was bumped up to July 2015 after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Horrific violence aside, this is noteworthy: it reflects the publisher’s effort to respond to current events. And the fact that Between the World and Me held strong on the bestseller list six months later not only speaks to the quality of the book itself (indisputable), but might also suggest that, as the spectacle of the presidential campaign got underway, readers’ interests shifted accordingly.

Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air (also very good) was number one every week between January 31 and March 27, 2016, but the other books on the top of the list were pretty mixed: Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Reagan, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, Pope Francis’s The Name of God Is MercyJane Mayer’s Dark Money, and, uh, The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joana Gaines, the stars of HGTV’s show “Fixer Upper,” for example.

By the time January 2017 rolls around, though, the influence of the election is more apparent: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy — which was widely recognized as an insight into the rural white voting bloc that supported Trump — was among the top four bestsellers every week between January 8 and March 26, 2017. Again, it was too early for most publishers to respond directly to the election by then, so while Hillbilly Elegy is indeed an excellent book, its presence on The List probably owes something to the luck of good timing, of speaking to a moment it didn’t necessarily anticipate. Memoirs by Carrie Fisher (who had just died in December) and Bruce Springsteen also featured prominently during those months, as did Bill O’Reilly’s Killing the Rising Sun (which I’d argue owes more to the branding of his series than it does to the political moment in which it was published).

So this brings us to the first months of 2018, when both my own instincts and Calfas’s report in TIME suggest that the top sellers should be heavily and directly Trump-related. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was, of course, number one on the list from January 21 through March 25, but I was surprised to see that the other top players were essentially as mixed as they had been in previous years: among them Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci, Ron Chernow’s Grant, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and James Patterson’s All-American Murder. To be fair, Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Joe Biden’s Promise Me, Dad, were top fours over the course of these months as well, and you could argue that their success is in some ways a response to the Trump administration, but I’d wager that those books would have done just as well if Hillary Clinton had been elected.

It’s worth noting, too, that A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, which pokes fun at Vice President Mike Pence, has also been a bestseller since its release in March, but it doesn’t appear on these lists because it’s technically a “Children’s Picture Book” and is thus in a different category altogether. Furthermore, Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette, which details Russia’s possible involvement in the election, has held the number one spot since its debut on April 1, and is probably only in danger of being dislodged by James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, which came out Tuesday (and after that, surely, by Seth Hettena’s bombshell Trump/Russia, which Melville House is publishing in May).

Still, I’d have thought the non-fiction bestsellers list was going to be Trump all the way down much earlier in the year than April for crying out loud — but it wasn’t. The headline for Calfas’s piece (“The Top 3 Bestselling Books This Year Have One Surprising Thing in Common”) wasn’t as disingenuous as I’d initially thought.

The last thing I learned, I learned because I did something I at first thought was dumb. I started out looking up the print/e-book combined lists, thinking that this would offer a better picture of what was selling during the months that interested me. But when the combined lists for the 2018 months were so varied, so contradictory to my instincts, I thought backlist titles might be screwing up the results. I thought that was why it wasn’t “Trump all the way down.” In fact, for every season I investigated, the hardcover list and the print/e-book combined lists were pretty similar — another data point that surprised me. I suspect this would be different for fiction hardcover vs. fiction print/e-book lists because genre readers tend to gravitate towards digital platforms, but that, too, is a Moby for another day.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.