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On bestseller list, Biden polls high

The Delaware senator's 'Promises' hits No. 15. Can book sales ignite his bottom-tier bid to be Democrats' nominee?

August 31, 2007|Christi Parsons | Chicago Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — The fan had asked Sen. Joe Biden to autograph a copy of his new book, but Biden held his pen poised over the empty page and launched into the story of his meeting with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"And then I said to Milosevic," Biden said, " 'I think you're a damned war criminal . . . ' " The man was listening intently -- a good thing, since Biden was just getting warmed up.

The famously verbose Delaware senator may have "Promises to Keep," as the title of his new book suggests, but he also had hours to go before he had to be anywhere. It was an end-of- summer vacation day in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, which left plenty of time for chatting.

And while his bottom-tier showing in the national polls pales in comparison to his lengthy tenure in the Senate, Biden's recent success with a New York Times bestseller has given him a new source of esteem. At one point this month, "Promises" ranked just behind runaway favorite "Freakonomics" in the nonfiction category.

To be sure, total sales between 8,000 and 15,000 copies don't promise an uptick in opinion polls. Prominent friends and longtime colleagues have helped promote the book by hosting promotional parties where local booksellers typically offer copies for purchase.

But an appearance at No. 15 on the New York Times bestseller list is a valuable achievement for the marketing of a book -- and a candidate -- even if it only lasted one week before dropping several slots.

Biden claims to be more shocked than anybody else.

"I never thought I'd write a book, let alone one that people would want to read," Biden said after the event at the Free Library here the other day. "It surprises me more than anyone."

Politicians have had mixed success with books.

"Profiles in Courage" won John F. Kennedy a Pulitzer before he was elected president, and former Vice President Al Gore soared with "Earth in the Balance." "Faith of Our Fathers" raised the profile of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Barack Obama's bestsellers have helped light a fire under the Illinois Democrat's political career.

At the same time, though, lots of books written by politicians have ended up as nothing more than doorstops, a risk any politician runs when submitting his or her career to such critical and popular review. The risk often seems worth it to candidates trying to ignite a national campaign. Just about every leading candidate in the 2008 race has published a memoir.

As with most authors, Biden owes his rank on the extended bestseller list partly to timing.

"It was very smart of Random House to release this book at a time when there were not a lot of other politically oriented books coming out," said Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. "It seems to have fit a niche between the Hillary Clinton bios and the Bill Clinton book that will come out in September."

Aides to Biden said that his campaign organization did not purchase copies of the book and that none have been given away as premiums or thank-you gifts to contributors. A spokeswoman for the New York Times, which screens for bulk sales in compiling its list, says there is no sign they were used to pump up the sales number.

The question for Biden is whether it will help a campaign that hasn't yet caught fire. Veteran campaign observers say it's not likely to make much of a difference.

"There's no question being on the bestseller's list is a great honor, but does it translate electorally?" said Donna L. Brazile, a Democratic strategist. "The jury is still out on that question. While both Sens. Clinton and Obama have also been bestsellers, their rock-star status began long before publishing their books."

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