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Publishers will hit the campaign trail

December 24, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- It was an almost perfect media firestorm, with a literary twist: Political daggers began flying recently when rumors spread that Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary, was going to confess in a new book that he had unknowingly made false public statements about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. And he claimed he wasn't acting alone -- he had done so with the involvement of top officials, including the president himself.

Pundits wondered darkly who leaked the juicy tidbit, but there was no conspiracy. The brouhaha was sparked by a blurb that the publisher had posted online. Although some were amazed by the furor over a title still months from publication, they were hardly surprised that a political book could have such a dramatic impact.

As publishers get ready to unleash a flood of titles geared to the 2008 presidential election, they are mindful of the extraordinary influence a handful of books have had in recent years. Bestselling titles about the war in Iraq, political celebrities and the Bush White House have shaped the national debate. Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" helped launch his candidacy; "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright illuminated the origins of the terrorist attacks; "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran offered a scathing portrait of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"These books have become part of a larger national conversation, especially with regard to the Iraq war," said Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs, which is publishing McClellan's memoir, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong With Washington." Osnos, who wrote about the uproar over the book in Editor & Publisher, added that these titles have an impact "because they can be produced more quickly now -- and they draw on the expertise of journalists and others in the field more than ever."

Not all political books need be serious to have an influence. As 2007 ends, bestseller lists are topped by TV comedian Stephen Colbert's "I Am America (and So Can You!)." And as McClellan's experience shows, titles don't even have to be on the shelves to generate publicity. The book biz is buzzing over news that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently inked a deal for his memoirs that eclipsed the $8 million given to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Former White House political advisor Karl Rove has also just signed a seven-figure book deal.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that most political titles do not experience such success. It's hard to make a new book stand out amid new releases, unless the author is a household name. And even then, books must battle with television, the Internet, magazines and newspapers for readers' attention.

"During the course of 2008, there will be maybe two or three new books which rise to the top and influence the campaign and maybe even how people will vote," said Neil Nyren, publisher and editor in chief of Putnam. "But the vast majority of these other books won't."

This is especially true of the quickie memoirs and essays by politicians that invariably pop up at election time. (In 2007, most of the candidates in both parties had at least one book on the market). Beyond a few exceptions, such as Obama's book or Clinton's "Living History," which has sold more than 3 million copies, these titles seldom catch fire. Once in a while, books by a late-blooming candidate -- such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's "From Hope to Higher Ground: My Vision for Restoring America's Greatness" -- will gain traction. But there are no guarantees. "Too many people in the book business believe that readers are willing to pay money to hear what a politician has to say," Marjory Ross, president of Regnery Publishing, said. "There's really no reason to do so, if you can get all of that information for free."

So which political books will influence the 2008 election? Here's a sampling of new titles:

9/11 and terrorism

New York Times reporter Philip Shenon's "The Commission" will suggest that the White House was inappropriately involved in manipulating and controlling information given to the 9/11 commission. Other books include "After 9/11: America's War on Terror" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, a journalistic work written in the form of a graphic novel, and "War and Decision" by Douglas Feith, an analysis of the war on terrorism by a former high-ranking Pentagon insider. Journalist Robert Scheer has penned "The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America."

The war in Iraq

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