Politics

Biden books are still bombing

NBC News’ Jonathan Allen went on a multi-stop national tour when he co-wrote a book on how Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” written with fellow journalist Amie Parnes, sold more than 125,000 copies and landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

But for the pandemic-era book he and Parnes wrote on Joe Biden, Allen didn’t even get the satisfaction of seeing a copy in stores. He didn’t go on a tour, either. “Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency” never made the Times best-seller list and so far has sold fewer than 10,000 copies since its release in March 2021, according to NPD BookScan, which is considered the gold standard of book sale measurement but does not include every sale.

Now, Allen says he’s turning his attention back to the Clintons. He has no plans to write another book on Biden.

“He has tried to be kind of a drama-free president, certainly in comparison to his predecessor, and that makes it harder to write a book, both in terms of getting information and turning his story into one that is compelling for readers,” said Allen.

After the Trump gold rush for the book industry of the last few years, the Biden era has, so far, been a bust. And that’s not just the case for mainstream journalists accustomed to chronicling the presidency in book form. Conservative readers don’t appear all that interested in reading hundreds of pages about a president they think is senile.

“Biden never does anything interesting,” said Eric Nelson, the publisher of HarperCollins’ conservative imprint Broadside Books. “The Hunter Biden stuff has done pretty well, because he’s appropriately interesting. But Hunter Biden is not the president.”

“If your nickname is Sleepy Joe, you kind of have to simultaneously say this person is ruining everything and is supremely evil, but also he’s inept and that’s sort of a challenging combination,” added one major conservative publisher granted anonymity to speak freely.

The few books that have been written about the Bidens have not exactly been flying off the shelves.

New York magazine writer Gabriel Debenedetti’s “The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama” has sold fewer than 1,500 copies, according to NPD BookScan. The Associated Press’ Julie Pace and Darlene Superville’s “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady” has sold fewer than 2,500 and Chris Whipple’s “The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House” and POLITICO’s Ben Schreckinger’s “The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power” have each racked up fewer than 5,000 books sold.

That’s in contrast to the almost million copies that Michael Wolff’s Trump-focused “Fire and Fury” sold, according to NPD BookScan, and the more than 400,000 copies that Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s “Peril” sold, among many other Trump-focused books on which publishers made a killing.

Superville conceded her book sales were “kind of a drop in the bucket” compared to the Trump-era works, but said she wrote it more for educational and historical purposes. She talked about elementary school kids doing projects on first ladies finding her book in the library.

“It wasn’t written really to be kind of a best-seller book or to land on the New York Times top 10 or anything like that,” she said.

Whipple said in an email that “The Fight of His Life” barely missed the NYT bestseller list. He also quoted from the Times review of his book which was largely positive but included the line that “the minor fender bender of the last two years does not make for titillating rubbernecking, especially compared with the 18-car pileup of the Trump era.”

Keith Urbahn, the president and founding partner of top D.C. literary agency Javelin, saw his business boom during the Trump years when he represented authors including former FBI director James Comey, former national security adviser John Bolton and the “anonymous” Trump official later revealed to be Miles Taylor.

“There was a sugar high in the Trump era from intrigue, the leakings, the nonstop drama, which was at once exhausting, but also generated billions of dollars in clicks, book sales, cable ratings and in 2021 that interest fell off a cliff,” Urbahn said. “What makes for stable governance makes less dramatic copy.”

Urbahn and his firm have repped several books about Biden that have seen lackluster sales, including one from the president’s sister Valerie Biden Owens — “Growing Up Biden: A Memoir” sold fewer than 9,000 copies — and Schreckinger’s more critical look at the Biden family.

“No one has yet written a successful book taking readers inside the Biden administration,” he noted. “I think it’s partly because it’s a very disciplined no-leaking culture which makes it harder to get the scoops and access. And then there’s the reality that the American public has mostly tuned out from Washington, D.C.”

Franklin Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, is hoping that his new Biden book, “The Last Politician,” will buck the trend and sell well and said it has strong pre-order sales. But he is prepared for the possibility that many of the Atlantic subscribers who read his book excerpt in the October issue won’t make the leap to actually buy the book.

When asked about the challenges of writing about Biden versus Trump, Foer said in an interview: “There are no sensationalist stories. I think everybody’s brain has been broken by Trump journalism and so our expectations about what’s exciting and important are totally skewed.”

Foer added that a fellow political journalist told him he had to think of his book as “Russian literature” compared to the Trump book genre.

Robert Costa, CBS News’ chief election and campaign correspondent who wrote “Peril” with Woodward, said the Biden presidency “is under-reported, understudied and often misunderstood.” Journalists, he added, have a responsibility to cover the current occupant of the White House even while the media also still covers Trump. But asked whether he is writing a new book with Woodward on Biden, Costa said he’s focused on his job at CBS, which will include an upcoming “CBS Saturday Morning” interview with Foer about his new Biden book.

Perhaps no reporter knows and understands Biden more intimately than the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. His book on China received the National Book Award and his book on inequality made it on the Times bestseller list. But his biography of Biden, which came out before the 2020 election, didn’t do as well.

“Just as a general life maintenance rule, I never ask publishers for details on sales,” he joked. “If my Biden book had made the bestseller list, I would have heard about it.”

Osnos thinks that Biden, nonetheless, is an interesting subject given the extraordinary life he has lived and the many political resurrections he’s had. That doesn’t mean Biden’s story matches the “almost novelistic levels of wildness” Trump exhibited.

“He doesn’t hit the political frontal lobe of the American public with the kind of hammer that Trump does and so I didn’t really expect that he would produce the same kind of sales that Trump did,” Osnos said. “There’s a reason Michael Wolff hasn’t set out to write a book on Biden as far as I know.”

Asked if he was writing a book on Biden, Wolff replied in a text message: “Apples oranges?”

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