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05.01.09

The Republican Bestseller Machine

Glenn Beck's new three-book deal shows that while conservatives wander the political wilderness, they continue to dominate book sales. As Ben Crair demonstrates, the hit parade stems from title and marketing formulas that are nothing short of scientific.

We know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? For most of the past month, Mark Levin’s stiffly-titled Liberty and Tyranny has topped the Amazon.com bestseller list. (When Hugo Chavez gave to President Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America, it rose from 54,295 to No. 2 on the list, unseating every book above it except for Levin’s—a fact in which Levin, a conservative talk-radio host, must certainly take some pride.) It’s a strangely familiar title, Liberty and Tyranny. It reminds you of, well, just about every other conservative bestseller of the past 10 years. A breeze through previous bestseller lists shows such polemics as Deliver Us From Evil, Culture Warrior, Fleeced, The Real America, Unhinged, Invasion, Slander, Treason, etc. That one was written by conservative talker Sean Hannity and another by conservative author Ann Coulter hardly matters. Minimalist, patriotic, and paranoid—one might mistake the titles of contemporary conservative literature for a staticky transcription of Levin’s show. We wanted to know: Is there a science to naming a conservative bestseller?

Adam Bellow suggests a second strategy for titling a conservative book: Bait liberals with an insulting title and then allow their outrage to raise the book’s profile.

Two decades ago, conservative bestsellers had titles that reflected the seriousness of their authors’ arguments—see Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind—or their impish wit—P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores. Taking their cue, perhaps, from William F. Buckley, whose titles like God & Man at Yale set the tone for the industry, they conveyed the impression of a pointed, philosophical, and poetic work. Indeed, there was almost a defensive scholarly aspect about them. As an editor at the publishing house Free Press, Adam Bellow, who now works for HarperCollins, was involved in the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray’s controversial book about race and IQ. “Why did we choose this boring title?” Bellow said in a recent interview. “The decision made to project a serious, scholarly impression in order to deflect the charge that it was a shrill opportunistic work of hackery.”

Now, Bellow says, “It’s much more personality-driven at the high-end of the commercial curve, and it’s really a result of the growth of mass media outlets for conservative views—radio and cable TV, primarily. Previously, just 15 years ago when The Bell Curve was published, these outlets didn’t really exist.” In other words, a lot of conservative books are not intended as literature so much as commodified extensions of their authors’ personalities. To suggest that these books were scholarly would be to taint their carefully cultivated everyman appeal with a stain of elitism. Consequently, conservative publishing house Regnery, which originally published God & Man at Yale, now grows fat from the book sales of Ann Coutler.

Another reason that conservative titles are pretty similar: The books themselves are pretty similar. “Movement conservative themes are pretty straightforward,” says Reihan Salam, co-author of Grand New Party, a recent book about remaking the GOP. It’s 1,001 variations on the same theme. The title Deliver Us from Evil, for example, comfortingly suggests that Hannity will be attacking liberals or other evil, but doesn’t feel it necessary to spell out what that evil may be. (According to the official description, the book is about "the harsh lessons America has learned in confronting evil in the past and the present”—still not much help.)

At this late date, there are a few conservatives that lack built-in radio or television audiences. Adam Bellow suggests a second strategy: Bait liberals with an insulting title and then allow their outrage to raise the book’s profile. This was the raison d’etre behind Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home, and Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death, all of which had titles that were roundly denounced in the liberal blogosphere. (The first two books were edited by Bellow.) This is also the preferred tactic of Ann Coulter, who provokes liberal indignation with Pavlonian preciseness.

Coulter’s one-word titles, starting with Slander in 2002, don’t leave much room for interpretation, but their progression over the course of four major books is potentially illuminating. Slander accused liberals of a crime, with America and conservatives (to writers like Coulter, one and the same) as the victims. Treason (2003) upped the ante to a federal charge. Godless (2006) upped it to an eternal one. Coulter’s latest title, Guilty (2009), represents a slightly different gambit in that it comes right out with verdict. Coulter’s perspective has shifted from the victim’s to the executioner’s—might her declining book sales testify to the fact that most people prefer their movement conservatives as outsiders with pitchforks rather than judges with gavels?

To be sure, liberal authors use these tactics, too: David Sirota’s The Uprising doesn’t exactly shimmer with originality, while Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot waves its title at conservatives like a bullfighter’s cape. But Franken’s title or Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? at least come with built-in irony—the first gives Limbaugh a taste of his own vitriolic medicine, while the second makes a pop-cultural reference. You can smile at them, regardless of whether or not you agree with their politics. Conservative titles, on the other hand, are almost entirely earnest. Glenn Beck’s The Real America sells because some readers actually trust Beck to arbitrate what “a real America” is. (Beck’s follow-up, An Inconvenient Book, has a much better title.)

Should Coulter continue the progression, then her canon will be completed after she titles her next book Damned. For her colleagues, however, the field is still ripe. The National Anthem has not been plundered ( Home of the Brave, Broad Stripes and Bright Stars). “America the Beautiful” has not yet shed its grace on Regnery ( For Spacious Skies, From Sea to Shining Sea). Moreover, these writers have barely cracked the thesaurus’s spine. Just a minute on Thesaurus.com, for example, yields a synonymic translation of Bill O’Reilly’s A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity that actually describes its contents and its author and is entirely original: A Shameless Immature Specimen of Humankind.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Ben Crair is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.