The Politics of Publishing
Getting a Book Deal Isn’t Always Easy, Even if You’re a Member of Congress
In addition to being the world’s most deliberative body, the U.S. Senate may well be the most prolific.
Just ask David Rosenthal, a vice president and publisher for Simon & Schuster in New York, which has produced tomes by everyone from recent presidential hopefuls Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) to Republican turned Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.) and former first lady turned Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“What a book does is give many a politician a sense of gravitas — something of lasting consequence. Something serious and real that you have worked on, and it has lasting import,” Rosenthal expounded. “You can go on a talk show and promote your book … You can’t go on and promote yourself … It can be a campaign document, or something like Senator Edwards’ book, ‘Four Trials.’”
But few lawmakers are destined to earn a fortune by penning their memoirs.
Clinton’s recent autobiography, “Living History,” fetched a whopping $8 million advance for the former first lady — but her book agent, Robert Barnett, noted that Clinton is a rare breed who falls into the “superstar category.”
Most Senators earn a much more modest fee for their stories — if they earn one at all.
According to the financial disclosure form he filed last year, Edwards earned a $7,500 advance for his book and audio contract with Simon & Schuster for “Four Trials,” which details his years as a trial lawyer in the South and the proceeds from the book’s sales are going to benefit the Wade Edwards Foundation, a non-profit set up in the memory of his son.
And while being a Senator certainly helps in the book business, it isn’t always enough to make it into print, at least with a big-name publisher.
Landing the Big Deal
Lots of Members of Congress publish books through regional publishers, but landing a four-, five- or six-figure publishing deal with a major publishing house usually requires a little something extra.
“Clearly, being a Member of Congress gives you some standing. It elevates you from any other crackpot wanting to write on an issue — sometimes,” said Rosenthal. But what he really looks for is a lawmaker with a provocative viewpoint, something special to say, or perhaps aspirations for higher office.
“Because of visibility, they might be able to get national media bookings. That’s a consideration,” Rosenthal said.
“I think what has to happen for a Senator or Congressman is to either become very well-known through a series of hearings or a piece of legislation — preferably not because you’re found with a dead girl.”
Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) riveting experiences as a seven-year prisoner of war in Vietnam helped make his first book, “Faith of Our Fathers,” a runaway bestseller. Following on that success, McCain’s “Worth the Fighting For,” also published by Random House, appeared last year, and his third book, “Why Courage Matters,” is due out next month.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) stirring account of tumultuous 107th Congress — which included the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the anthrax attack on Congress, and the change of control in the Senate that briefly elevated him to the role of Majority Leader — formed the basis of “Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and The Two Years That Changed America Forever,” which was recently published by Crown, a division of Random House.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who is close to finalizing a book deal with a major publisher, found inspiration for a new book from his work on intelligence matters related to the Sept. 11 attacks, and since he is retiring at the end of this Congress, he’ll have plenty of free time to travel the country promoting his book.
“He is working and the proposal is out there,” Graham spokesman Paul Anderson confirmed. Anderson said the book will focus primarily on issues he worked on during his time as chairman of the Intelligence Committee — namely “the intelligence community, intelligence failures prior to 9/11, prior to the Iraq War and the need for reform of the intelligence community.”
This isn’t Graham’s first foray into writing.
In 1978, the former Florida governor published a book called “Work Days: Finding Florida On the Job,” which was published by the Miami-based Banyan Books — but this time around Graham is likely to land a contract with a big-league publishing house, thanks to Barnett, his literary agent.
Barnett, a lawyer for Williams & Connolly in Washington, has been helping mostly Democratic politerati land book deals since 1984, when he helped former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro land a deal with Bantam to publish “My Story,” a candid account of her 1984 campaign for the White House with then-Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
Options for Authors
Barnett said there are usually “two kinds of levels of possibility” for aspiring authors in Congress.
“There are people in the Congress — House and Senate — who are what I’ll call ‘household names.’ Everybody knows who they are,” Barnett explains. “Joe Lieberman was one. Dick Armey was one. If Senator [Ted] Kennedy would every write a book, he’d be one. Daschle is one. With those people, if they have either a good idea or a good autobiographical account, they can get the attention of and likely get a contract from one of the majors.”
If a Member isn’t well-known, Barnett says, then “it takes a very good proposal” — a good write-up of the idea, how it’s going to be executed, organized and who it’s going to appeal to, and then it might attract a big publishing company’s attention.
If a lawmaker isn’t concerned with having to be front and center at Borders, Barnett said, then they can also pursue a third avenue: having local or regional press publish their book.
Barnett has helped land book deals for a host of politicians — including both Clintons and a bipartisan group of nine female Senators who decided to share their stories in “Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate,” published in 2000 by William Morrow.
Barnett said that the idea for “Nine and Counting” came about when Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) were speaking with a group of Irish activists and talking about how they had gotten their start in politics.
Upon reflection, Mikulski and Hutchison thought that their stories, and that of the other seven women in the Senate at that time, would make an amazing story.
“They all have amazing stories. They all got here in different ways. … We put it together and a lot of publishers were interested,” Barnett said.
With nine authors and one book, the publisher had a dream marketing team on his hands when it came to book tours.
“We had two [Senators] in California and two in Maine … so in certain states we were really doubled up,” Barnett said.
But the compelling story doesn’t always have to be the Member’s own life’s tale.
In addition to being part of “Nine and Counting,” Mikulski is an accomplished fiction writer, and has even sold the movie rights to one of her novels.
Dutton-Signet published her two books — “Capitol Offense” and “Capitol Venture” co-authored with former Los Angeles Times reporter Marylouise Oates — and in 1997, Once Upon A Time Films Ltd. of Santa Monica, Calif., agreed to pay her 50 percent of proceeds for an option and production to make a CBS television movie based on “Capitol Offense.”
Even so, those with a compelling story to tell don’t always make it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.
Jeffords’ balance-altering defection from the GOP that handed control of the Senate to the Democrats in 2001 was a riveting tale, but unfortunately the book, “My Declaration of Independence,” was scheduled to debut the week of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Sales were overtaken by events there,” Rosenthal, his publisher, explained.
By the time Jeffords’ second book, a memoir titled “An Independent Man,” hit bookstores, the 2002 midterm elections shifted control of the chamber back to the Republicans and Jeffords wasn’t getting the same sort of attention he’d previously enjoyed.
While the book sold well regionally, it did not break out nationally.
Rosenthal freely admits that Simon & Schuster “tend to probably be more on the Democratic side” with whom they publish, but said that the trend developed more as a matter of happenstance than by design, thanks to the contacts between certain editors and publishers with different personalities in Washington.
Even if it won’t make them rich, books can pay off handsomely for those with ambitions for higher office.
Publishers admit that books can potentially be powerful fundraising tools for lawmakers — especially those on the road to the White House.
“It’s like taking a candidate home with you,” Simon & Schuster’s Rosenthal explained. “You have a picture of Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich on your bed stand. Reading a book is a very intimate experience. It might be the ultimate campaign ad.”