The political bent only part of story behind book deals


When Newt Gingrich first signed his now-infamous $4.5 million deal for two books, he defended the price as a lesson in supply and demand: "Conservative books sell. It's not my fault that liberal books don't sell."

But if liberal books don't sell, then why did Simon & Schuster, publishing home of Rush Limbaugh, sign former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo this week for an undisclosed sum? (The Democrat-lawyer-Dorito pitchman was rumored to be looking for up to $2 million, but sources familiar with the deal said it fell far short of that.) Why has Little, Brown & Co. asked Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey to write a memoir about his family? And how does one categorize "Maverick: A Life in Politics," the Lowell P. Weicker Jr. memoir also in the works at Little, Brown? Mr. Weicker, a former Republican senator and independent governor, was spat on and booed after he fought for Connecticut's first income tax.

Wait, there's more. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, has a $200,000 deal for his autobiography. But Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulsi is still shopping for a publisher for a mystery she's co-written with former Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Marylouise Oates.

See a pattern there? Sure, a crazy-quilt.

When it comes to politicians and publishing, there are few hard-and-fast rules. Seeming sure-fire hits, such as Ronald Reagan's biography, fail to earn back their mega-buck advances, while the Clinton administration's health plan ends up a best seller.

Mr. Mfume was approached by a literary agent 18 months ago, after a profile of the up-from-poverty congressman appeared in BusinessWeek. Mr. Mfume was told his life was "a genuine American story" that could inspire young people. He wasn't so sure.

"I had to be drug along," he says. "I only agreed to do what's known as a 'billboard' -- a manuscript of 60 pages, double-spaced. There was a ton of interest."

Ten publishers ended up bidding on the still-untitled book, to be published next year by Ballantine. But the project was never seen as a political treatise, Mr. Mfume says. Instead, interested editors invoked inspirational books such as Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holler."

"I could still be a professor over at Morgan State and writing this book," says Mr. Mfume, who is sharing his advance with a co-author, journalist Ron Stodgill.

So how do editors pick the politicians they publish? "I think they choose on the basis of who the CEO wants to have lunch with," theorizes writer Richard Ben Cramer, whose detailed examination of the 1988 campaign, "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," provided him with insight into both species.

Publishers say they're looking for provocative books that will sell, which can be found at either end of the political spectrum. But to be a blockbuster, a book needs to cut across political boundaries.

"There are always at least two sides to every story, possibly more," says Carolyn K. Reidy, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade division. "As publishers, our job is to publish all sides. That's why we signed Mario Cuomo. The American book-buying public is not monolithic."

But conservatives do seem to be in vogue. A glance at the current best-seller lists shows three winners: William J. Bennett's "Book of Virtues," on the list for more than a year, and Barbara Bush's memoir, an off-again, on-again contender since its publication last fall.

On the paperback list, Newt Gingrich already has his first best seller. "Contract with America," credited to the Georgia congressman and his Texas colleague, Dick Armey, has sold an estimated 250,000.

Contrast that with the fall of 1992, when then-Sen. Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance," was selling briskly in hardback, while "Putting People First," the Clinton-Gore platform, was a paperback best seller. But the only liberal politician to enjoy recent success has been Jimmy Carter, who made the fiction list for his book of poems.

The key to success now, says Lynn Chu, Mr. Gingrich's agent, is to find "charismatic conservatives."

"Publishers, who try to be ahead of trends, are incredibly late on the curve with conservative books," she says. "They've been in total denial about Rush Limbaugh's success and it's only now, with a Republican victory, that a lot of people have been signed up."

Inevitably, there will be a glut of political books within a year's time, Ms. Chu said. But she's confident Mr. Gingrich's book won't get lost in the crowd.

And, although not everyone in publishing agrees Mr. Gingrich will be a success, they do agree on the number of books he would have had to sell to earn back a $4.5 million advance -- at least 500,000. That's a huge number in the book business, equal to the first printing for O.J. Simpson's book, "I Want To Tell You."

Sales are no longer an issue for Mr. Gingrich. After the book deal became a hot issue, he turned down the advance from HarperCollins in exchange for $1 and a standard royalty contract.

But the controversy hasn't disappeared. The House Ethics Committee is weighing whether to investigate the book deal. And there is a proposal in Congress to close the loophole that exempts book advances and royalties from the $15,000 cap on outside income for members.

Historically, there has always been a market for books by politicians, though they were typically penned by retired pols. But Winston Churchill wrote even as he governed, as has Mario Cuomo. Today's market accommodates sitting politicians, politicians in exile and political hopefuls. One of the most eagerly awaited books is from Colin Powell, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a possible presidential contender, who received a $6 million advance for his memoirs.

Even within the tiny niche of conservative politician-writers, no two books are alike.

"What's true about Newt Gingrich's [success] isn't true about Dan Quayle," observes John Sloan, an editor with Zondervan Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Christian publishing company co-edited Dan Quayle's best seller, "Standing Firm," but it also published Rosa Parks' current memoir. "And what's true about Dan Quayle isn't true about Newt Gingrich."

The former vice president found an audience, his editor says, because he had a singular message and double exposure: "Standing Firm," published in partnership with HarperCollins, enjoyed a large boost from Christian bookstores.

In fact, what's true about William J. Bennett isn't always true about William J. Bennett.

The first book by the former secretary of education, "The De-Valuing of America," sold well when it was first published in 1992, but never in the volume needed to make the best-seller lists. Re-issued in a new cover, with a blurb from Rush Limbaugh, it reached Mr. Bennett's core readers -- partisan conservatives.

When "The Book of Virtues" was completed, notes Ms. Reidy of Simon & Schuster, the marketing campaign centered on one question: "How do we make people see it's not just a book for Bill Bennett's fans?" The book cut across partisan lines, selling 2 million copies to date.

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