Is the conservative book business – a publishing gold mine that has included such hits as Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus,” Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue,” and Marco Rubio’s “An American Son” – a bubble that’s about to burst?
That’s the story in a provocative new article by BuzzFeed writer McKay Coppins.
After a decade-long publishing boom, the conservative book business is dying, capping an industry gold rush and perhaps marking the end of an era in publishing, says Coppins in his article “Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End of a Publishing Gold Rush.”
As he tells it, the rise of right-leaning books was a trend that surprised most in publishing, and, in an ironic twist, its very success ultimately set the stage for its demise due to oversaturation and fierce competition.
“Ten years ago, the genre was a major source of intellectual energy on the right, and the site of a publishing boom, with conservative imprints popping up at industry giants like Random House and Penguin,” Coppins writes. “But after a decade of disruption, uneven sales, and fierce competition, many leading figures in the conservative literati fear the market has devolved into an echo of cable news, where an overcrowded field of preachers feverishly contends for the attention of the same choir.”
His ominous warning: “The gutting of the conservative book market could mark the end of a cycle that began in the summer of 1987.”
It’s no joke that conservative books – not liberal ones – have been flying off shelves for the better part of the last decade. As we reported in August 2012, an Amazon Election Heat Map indicated that the vast majority of states, some 43, buy “red” books and about 56 percent of political book purchases are right-leaning.
The blockbuster rise of conservative talk radio and Fox News Channel groomed “conservative celebrities” like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Howard Stern, Mike Huckabee, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and scores of others whose success on screen translated to mega-sales in print.
At first, conservatives celebrated their success in publishing “as the sort of victory that had eluded them in Hollywood, academia, and the mainstream press — a mass influx of conservatives that would wrest the industry from the hands of liberal elites and work to reverse the tide of the culture wars,” writes Coppins.
Instead, that massive success laid the groundwork for the conservative publishing industry’s demise, Coppins says.
Here’s how. The influx of right-leaning books ultimately led publishers to launch conservative imprints, creating a new genre for conservative political books.
“Genrefication” removed conservative books from the “mainstream marketplace of ideas” into unsexy niches the “same as science fiction or nutritional self-help guides.”
As the genre grew, publishers faced pressure to move away from the conservative intellectuals who began the movement toward provocateurs like Coulter, who could generate the type of attention-grabbing content and land the big-name TV and radio shows that would attract readers.
“You are left to rely completely on cable and radio [for promotion] and as a consequence of that, you have to provide those ventures the type of material they want,” Adam Bellow, who runs HarperCollins’ conservative imprint, Broadside, told BuzzFeed. “It’s become a kind of blood sport and the most ruthless gladiator comes out on top.”
Witnessing the conservative book industry’s success, increasing numbers of right-leaning personalities entered the field. Too many. While the number of conservative books skyrocketed, the audience didn’t grow much. The result? Oversaturation.
Or, as Coppins put it, “One agent compared conservative literature to Young Adult fiction, an unsexy niche genre that quietly pulled in respectable profits for years until the big houses took notice, and began entering into bidding wars for promising authors, and flooding the market in a frenzied attempt to find the next 'Twilight.'"
In the end, Broadside editor Bellow told Buzzfeed, success made a mockery of the conservative book biz.
“There’s a tension for conservatives. They didn’t want to be ghettoized. The whole point was that they wanted to bring their ideas to a mass audience. The irony was that just as they achieved respectability for their views and were accepted into mainstream publishing, they were hived off into imprints."
And that, claims Coppins, is why the conservative publishing boom – the poster child of the publishing industry’s surprise successes – is a bubble about to burst.
More hot air or publishing prophecy? Time will tell whether his verdict is correct.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.