John McCain: Debate among publishers

February 7, 2008 12:04:51 PM PST
Mary Matalin, conservative pundit and adviser to former presidential candidate Fred Thompson, has attacked Sen. John McCain for his stances on taxes and immigration and for the "madness" of jumping on "the pseudo-religious global warming bandwagon."

Matalin is also head of the conservative Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. With McCain almost surely the Republican nominee, Matalin and like-minded publishers face a conflict shared by the conservative community as a whole: How to handle a presidential candidate who has often dissented from the right wing.

"He is a different kind of conservative and I think his candidacy will set off a new round of issue-oriented, principal-oriented books about conservatism," says Matalin, whose current releases include Glenn Beck's "An Inconvenient Book" and John Bolton's "Surrender Is Not an Option."

Marji Ross, president of the conservative Regnery Publishing, has mixed feelings about McCain as a candidate, but does think he'll be good for business, if only because he incites so much debate. Like Matalin at Threshold, she expects that upcoming Regnery releases will focus more on ideas than personality, such as a current best seller, Newt Gingrich's "Real Change."

Both Threshold and Regnery have published books by McCain critics. Beck has called him "more dangerous even than Hillary Clinton." A Regnery book, Christopher C. Horner's "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism," places the Arizona senator among "the green lobby's favorite politicians."

Jed Babbin, editor of Human Events magazine, a sister publication of Regnery's, has written a handful of books for Regnery and recently wrote a column entitled "John McCain: The Anti-Conservative." Ross, asked by The Associated Press if she would consider publishing an anti-McCain book by Babbin, said she "would give it a serious look."

"I don't know the answer," says Adrian Zackheim, founder of the conservative Sentinel imprint at Penguin Group (USA), when asked by the AP if he would publish an anti-McCain book. "And I think the fact that I don't know the answer is interesting."

Meanwhile, publishers of books written by McCain are looking to take advantage of his remarkable rise since last summer, when his campaign appeared over. Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group USA is rushing a paperback of McCain's "Hard Call," which received little attention when it came out as a hardcover in August.

HarperCollins is anticipating increased sales for the paperback of McCain's "Faith of My Fathers," a best-selling memoir published in 1999. Jonathan Burnham, publisher of HarperCollins, says "we're talking to writers and agents right now about possible (new) McCain projects."

"I think McCain himself should consider doing another book," Matalin says. "He could use a framework to present his ideas, so others can try to understand them and promote them."

The competitive primary campaign has complicated publishers' schedules. By February 2004, Republicans knew that President Bush would be their candidate that fall and Democrats had largely agreed on Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Publishers were able to respond with a wave of topical books, from Michael Moore's anti-Bush "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?" to the anti-Kerry "Unfit for Command," a disputed, but news-making attack on Kerry's Vietnam War record.

But with the Democratic race so close this year that it may not be resolved before the party's convention, in late August, publishers don't expect any timely new works about the winner to emerge before the election. Instead, readers likely will have to seek out older books, whether memoirs by Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama or biographies such as Carl Bernstein's "A Woman in Charge."

"I know that when I get anti-Hillary proposals, I tell them, `Just wait and see if she becomes president,"' Ross says. "Even if she's the nominee, there are so many books out about her that the marketplace feels like it knows everything about her past."

"It is a tough, tough situation to publish books into," Zackheim says. "The only books you can publish in that time span are books that can be written very quickly."

The campaign is far enough along that at least publishers can safely predict some flops. Among the doomed: "The Fred Factor: How Fred Thompson May Change the Face of the '08 Campaign," Hugh Hewitt's "A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Mitt Romney" and ex-candidate Bill Richardson's "Leading by Example," for which is offering a 64 percent discount just four months after it came out.