The lonely lives of conservative editors in the liberal world of book publishing

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- If a handful of editors and marketing people make a right turn at a big publishing convention and no one hears it, did they make a peep?



On a recent Saturday afternoon at the huge new Convention Center here, filled to capacity by that massive annual trade show of the book business called BEA (BookExpo America), a group of conservative editors and sales execs took a chance.

They gathered in their chosen venue, Room 203AB, for a panel on "Selling and Promoting Right of Center Books Via Left of Center Channels." Outside, close to 30,000 of the other attendees milled about in what might have seemed aisles and aisles of such channels, sampling the coming year's wares. They include:


Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas Ricks (September, Penguin).

The Best War Ever: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Mess in Iraq, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (September, Tarcher).

Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back, by Amy and David Goodman (September, Hyperion).

See a pattern yet?

Also heading our way is Bloodthirsty Bitches and Pious Pimps of Power: The Rise and Risk of the New Conservative Hate Culture, by Gerry Spence (October, St. Martin's).

And The Angry Right: Why Conservatives Keep Getting It Wrong, by S.T. Joshi (September, Prometheus). And Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration, by Seth Shulman (January, University of California Press). And several guides to impeaching President Bush.

Think it's hard to be a conservative in the book-publishing business? The panelists who showed up say you don't know the half of it.

"There are very few right-wing book editors in Manhattan," remarked Bernadette Malone, senior editor for Sentinel, the new conservative imprint at Penguin. "All of them can sleep in my studio apartment and roll beds out."


"People in New York publishing want to believe, if they like me, that I'm not really conservative," added Malone, who published former Washington Post reporter Ronald Kessler's positive take on Bush, and former New York Times magazine editor Edward Klein's controversial book, The Truth About Hillary.

"They don't understand conservatives," Malone quipped. "They think we're in favor of blood for oil."

"People even sabotage books," said Marjory G. Ross, publisher of Regnery Publishing, probably the best-known house these days for flashy conservative books. Loyal liberal bookstore clerks, Ross contended, "will put [a conservative] book on the bottom shelf, or on a back table."

The panel's organizers hoped to get the many publishing people who lean blue to listen to how it feels to tilt red. Another aim was to describe how conservatives have managed to score big successes in recent years by devising strategies to sell books that many in the business don't ideologically support.

The plan didn't work. Even though the panel took place at lunchtime, more than half the seats remained empty.

"What we're discussing in this room," said Malone, referring to left-right divides in the business, "most people here think isn't an issue."


Industry veteran Harry McCullough Jr., former vice president and director of trade sales at Macmillan, nonetheless put those sympathetic to conservative books in a good mood, providing an overview of how they've risen.

"Conservative books started to appear on the best-seller list in the early 1980s," he explained. "The first really big one was The Closing of the American Mind" by Allan Bloom.

Other books by intellectuals also did well, such as Illiberal Education by Dinesh D'Souza and The Morning After by George Will. But the book that structurally changed the publishing environment for conservatives, according to McCullough, was Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be.

"He was shameless in promoting it on his own show," McCullough recalled, "but he admitted it was shameless." The book sold millions. Even before Fox News arrived in 1996, McCullough noted, it showed conservatives they could avoid "traditional publishing channels" and make a killing.

These days, Malone said, there "are about six places" agents can take a conservative book. But sometimes, she joked, it's as if liberals in publishing barely know how to talk to conservatives.

Malone mentioned an agent who came to her with "a book about rich people in the 1930s." She asked, "How is that a conservative book?" The reply? "Well, they're rich."


Malone said many publishing folk also misunderstand the demographics of conservative readers. "The assumption is that it's a bunch of fat, white men buying these books," she observed. In fact, Malone asserted, her research shows that 52 percent of those who buy conservative books are women.

All three panelists agreed that houses specializing in conservative books don't want, as Ross put it, "compromised-position books" or "middle-of-the-road books."

Conservatives, Ross said, "structure the selling of a book like a political campaign." Lots of talk radio, lots of "off-the-book-page" coverage. "We don't really care about reviews," Ross said, "because we want sparks to fly. That's much easier on radio and TV than in print."

That approach also explains, she believes, why the percentage of conservative books that sell on Amazon rather than in stores is larger than for nonconservative books: "It makes sense because our goal is making readers think, 'I've got to get that book today!'"

In the end, all three panelists agreed that even "passionate" conservative books must stand up to criticism. Asked in the Q&A; session how far she'd go to push an author to "balance" a book that seemed too weighted with pro-conservative evidence, Malone replied, "I don't try to balance my books. I try to 'augment' them."

Outside 203AB, at the Continuum booth, you could find a copy of sociologist Frank Furedi's recent book, Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right. It includes a chapter, "Left and Right - How the Words Lost Their Meaning."


Not around here.