The life of the nation, right now, is varied and complex. Movies are coming out; Americans are falling in love and buying cars getting married and watching parents die, and all the other things that make up the human experience. But in book publishing, there’s one thing that matters, perhaps more than anything else: the presidential election of November 2020.
Though we’re a few months past a national midterm election and almost two years from the presidential, much of book publishing is consumed with excitement, anxiety and uncertainty about what 2020 will deliver. “We’re all looking at that season very warily,” says Denise Oswald, executive editor at HarperCollins’ Ecco Press. “I wouldn’t put a debut author, especially a novelist, on that list.”
“We live in a reality-TV world, led by our president,” says literary agent Lynn Nesbit, co-founder of Janklow & Nesbit Associates. The result, she says, is a nation riveted by political events and speculation, and huge sales for a few books that engage explicitly or implicitly political themes. For months now, she says, agents have been discussing 2020’s looming iceberg with the authors they represent and the editors who shepherd their books. “They’ve been talking about that already: ‘We don’t want it to fall into 2020.’ ”
The centrifugal force of November 2020 so strong, it’s exerting itself on books that have almost nothing to do with politics at all. Is anyone safe?
The political cycle
To be sure, there’s always an ebb and flow of books about politics, especially electoral politics.
But the usual cycle – politics books arriving around the presidential election, like Theodore White’s classic series, with a bump in the middle for the midterms – has been disrupted. “It’s all blurring – it’s not an every-four-years thing,” says Robert Weil, who heads Norton’s Liveright Books. “You don’t have to wait for Teddy White to do a book every four years; the cycle has never stopped.” He compares the surge of political books to the unrelenting 24-hour rush of cable news.
And while most publishers only recently started discussing the impact of the 2020 race in earnest, the distorting effect began a year or two ago. “The postmortem books on the 2016 election started the trend,” Ben Adams, executive editor of PublicAffairs, says of titles that followed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s surprise loss. Since then, “the runaway bestsellers have been politics books, whether liberal or conservative,” Adams says.
“Since 2016,” says Ecco’s Oswald, “politics has become permanent” — a topic that obsesses readers, writers and the media that connect them. Fall lists – the docket of books released from September until December or later – typically have significant pressure on them, largely because publishers release their heavyweight titles before the Christmas gift-giving season. In a parallel to the way Oscar-worthy films generally come out in the autumn for awards consideration, more vulnerable titles or lesser known authors are often moved elsewhere. But, says Oswald, “There’s nothing typical about the condition we’ve been in for the last two years.”
This meant that 2018 was a good year for book publishing, but one mostly supported by a few politics titles. (Vulture recently called the Trump Bump 2018’s answer to 2012’s bestselling “50 Shades of Grey” queen E.L. James.) Alongside Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” and Tucker Carlson’s “Ship of Fools,” the nonfiction bestseller last year was Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” Even the fiction bestseller, Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s “The President Is Missing,” offered no relief from politics.
Chasing the zeitgeist
Publishers, in a sense, try to do the same thing that newspaper and magazine editors aim for — to anticipate their readership’s interest and the likely context around it. But instead of days or weeks, book publishers work with at least a year in lead time. If an author turns in a manuscript this week, it would likely land on a spring 2020 list; a book arriving in April or later would typically publish in Fall 2020.
“It’s a moving target, and book publishing is at a terrible disadvantage trying to hit it,” says Chris Calhoun, an agent whose author roster includes a wide variety of writers, from jazz pianist Fred Hersch to political commentator Michael Tomasky. He says he finds it impossible to try to guess what’s coming. “Things are moving too fast for the book business.” He says he wants a balanced list of authors and subjects, not only zeitgeist chasers.
More typical, though, are agents and editors trying to move books away from fall 2020, or out of the year altogether. Generally, publishing types won’t name a title they’ve moved off a list so as not to suggest a vote of no-confidence. But agent Nesbit describes the situation many share when they confront 2020: “For most books,” she says, “that will be a very difficult climate in which to break through the noise.”
That difficult climate includes fiction, especially literary fiction by noncelebrity writers – or what one publicist calls “a delicate first novel.” It also includes memoirs not written by the legion of Democratic presidential hopefuls or by writers who claim to explain recent political developments, the way J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” was pitched as an X-ray of rural conservatism. It’s a danger zone for nonfiction books that don’t confront some version of how-we-got-here, why-they-do-what-they-do, where-are-we-going, or similar themes.
“It’s become much harder to book media in advance,” says Oswald. Publishers can labor for weeks to line up an author on NPR, only to have it canceled by an errant tweet.
Even books about actual political issues can have trouble, says Katy O’Donnell, senior editor at Bold Type Books, formerly Nation Books. Her goal, she says, is to explain current affairs with nuance, not foment rage. But a book that takes a sober look at immigration policy, or emerges from years of investigative reporting, could be drowned out by election-season shouting. “You can’t re-break the news,” she says.
As with film distributors who counter-program by releasing character-driven indies during superhero-heavy summers, publishers may find a way to offer alternatives to politics. Adams imagines reality-weary readers walking into a bookstore, craving a novel, a book about food.
“Eventually the pendulum will swing,” says Oswald, who’s looking forward to it.
But it hasn’t happened yet.