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The Nation

Clinton's Memoir Stirs Up 'Frenzy' in Book Industry

June 19, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Bill Clinton was on a roll, telling a rapt audience at New York University this week about his battles against impeachment and life in the White House. But then he abruptly stopped, and left listeners with a big tease:

"If you like what I talked about," he said, "wait until you read the book."

With Clinton's memoir, "My Life," set to hit stores next week, the stories behind its publication are bursting with superlatives: The former president got a $10-million advance from publisher Alfred A. Knopf, which is thought to be the largest amount ever paid for a nonfiction political book. And the company announced a first printing of 1.5 million copies, the largest ever for a presidential autobiography.

No previous White House memoir has generated comparable interest. And the reason, many observers contend, does not rest in the Monica S. Lewinsky sex scandal alone. It is the fact that the long-awaited life story of Clinton -- loved by some, hated by others -- is hitting the American book market at a moment when it is primed to sell more copies of such a work than ever before.

Media attention also has been stoked by the possibility that Clinton's book, appearing in the midst of a presidential campaign, could affect the outcome. Opinions are mixed on whether the fortunes of presumed Democratic candidate John F. Kerry's fortunes will be helped or hindered by news stories and publicity focusing on Clinton.

"This is a unique event in publishing history," said John Baker, editorial director of Publishers Weekly. "It is by far the biggest, most ambitious marketing campaign for a presidential memoir that I have ever seen."

When most presidents leave office, there is a sense that Americans know the important details about them, and that their stories have largely been told.

But Clinton remains a fascinating character to many people, someone whose persona is evolving. And there is an expectation that his book will reveal key details about his life.

At the NYU event, for example, he regaled the crowd with tidbits about his battle with Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr and others he considered political enemies.

As a presidential author, some observers say, Clinton is in a category by himself -- with more public interest in his celebrity than his governing.

"Do you really think readers will be spending money to get his 50-page take on the Middle East?" asked one publishing executive who has had experience with presidential memoirs. "They're going to turn immediately to the stuff on [White House intern] Monica Lewinsky."

And the publishing industry is poised to cash in on a scale that dwarfs the 1990 campaign for the last comparable memoir, "An American Life," by Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, the campaign behind the Clinton book highlights the changes in the literary marketplace in the last decade.

When Reagan's memoir came out, small, independent bookstores dominated the publishing world, and using television shows such as Oprah Winfrey's talk show as a sales tool was a relatively new phenomenon. "An American Life" sold about 380,000 copies -- a respectable amount, but hardly the bestseller some had predicted.

During the last 10 years, however, national chains, discount retailers and online sellers have expanded the venues where books are sold. There also are new media outlets for book publicity, including cable TV shows, niche radio programming and the Internet.

As a mark of changing times, Clinton has scheduled stops on his book tour at a Wal-Mart in Arkansas and a Costco in Washington state. These chain stores have grabbed an increasingly larger share of book sales, and are now a more common site for signings.

Americans also seem to have developed a greater interest in political memoirs in recent years: "My American Journey" -- the story of Gen. Colin L. Powell, now secretary of State -- benefited from an aggressive marketing campaign in 1995, selling 1.5 million copies. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History" has sold 1.8 million copies -- and many are betting her husband will beat that.

"We've never had this kind of a frenzy over a former president selling his book," said veteran New York publicist Lynn Goldberg. "And the book world wants a monster right now, a big buzz. That's why everybody is rooting for this memoir to do so well."

It helps if the product makes news. Previous presidential memoirs gave former leaders the chance to explain their policies, settle old scores and burnish a legacy. But with one exception -- that of Ulysses S. Grant -- none of these books was a literary masterpiece.

Clinton's book "holds out the tantalizing possibility that we're going to learn something about a White House scandal, and not just policy matters," said Neal Gabler, a cultural historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Walt Disney.

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