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05.14.09

Rules for Writing a Bestseller

When the author went on tour for his new book Power Rules, he discovered the secret to being Thomas L. Friedman and Fareed Zakaria: It’s better to be wrong and famous.

If you have a choice between a book tour around the United States and some big pill, take the pill and then go on the tour as I did several months ago.

Book writers have been obliged to do these tours for ages, perhaps most famously, Mark Twain. But that was long before radio and television, when speaking was probably the best way to promote book sales. Now, it’s the tube, even more than very good reviews in The New York Times. For most of the last four or five decades, a good review in the Times was book-selling nirvana. But that was back in the days when people read books or read the Times review just so they could claim they read the book.

As Bill Safire, my former Times colleague, said in introducing me at a Washington, D.C. book event, it reminded him of the duality of one of his favorite titles, Avoid Boring People.

Allow me to restrict this reverie to foreign-policy books, which I know more about than the other kinds. If there were a God or a smidgeon of fairness in life, my book— Power Rules—would be a bestseller. Trust me, and don’t believe the review in The Washington Post that says I should have written my memoirs instead. As I say at the start of most of my talks, once you read this book, you’ll be able to vanquish every foe and make multiple sexual conquests, or your money back. But while I was near-famous when I toiled as a correspondent and columnist for the Times, I’m an acquired taste now. So, making the bestseller list is an impossible stretch.

gelb-power-rules-book-cover
Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Save American Foreign Policy. 352 pages. Harper. $27.99. ()

The only foreign-policy books nowadays that make it to the top are those written by authors like Tom Friedman, who succeeded me at the Times. He had his fame and his title going for him. Everybody knows Friedman. But more importantly for sales, he had a phenomenal title, The World Is Flat, which is of course wrong as was the basic argument of the book that international power has been equalized by globalization. But he sold millions. Being spectacularly wrong, however, is good.

Also, you can have a foreign-policy bestseller if you’re Fareed Zakaria with his great Indian-British accent and exotic good looks, and with a television show. The title of his current bestseller is The Post-American World. This is also wrong (America remains the leading power in the world by far), but unlike Friedman, Zakaria knows the title is wrong, as he makes clear early on in the book. What it shows, however, is that people love the idea that America’s day is over. Fareed’s real argument is that we are in the pre-post-American era. And that could be right if we don’t shape up, and fast.

Anyway, my wife Judy thought up my title, Power Rules, and though it suffers from being true, I like it a lot. The title has a double meaning: One of the premises of the book—power still rules international affairs—and the rules that the book offers on how to think about and use those powers. As Bill Safire, my former Times colleague, said in introducing me at a Washington, D.C. book event, it reminded him of the duality of one of his favorite titles, Avoid Boring People.

But I digress; back to the book tours. If you’re not a celebrity or, at a minimum, someone who has committed a recent heinous or otherwise memorable crime, don’t expect throngs of worshippers to fill the seats in the auditoriums and hotel dining rooms. If 100 people turn out at the Los Angeles Public Library, that’s good. Depressingly, maybe 25 will buy the book for you to sign. The best ratio I got was at my own Council on Foreign Relations events in New York and Washington. A few hundred gathered at each place and about half plunked down $28 for my treasured signature on the book.

In San Francisco, the audience topped 300 members of the Northern California World Affairs Council. It was a great group that asked good questions like how I would solve Afghanistan, which I’m always eager to talk about to show how my book can solve just about anything. Inexplicably, there was no break after my talk (they went directly into a panel discussion), which meant no time for the mesmerized audience to flock to the book table where I was poised, grease pen in hand.

I spoke to smaller groups of Council on Foreign Relations members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, and other places. And those sessions were often challenging and fun. Events open to the general public are almost always better than you expect. Most questions are smart, direct, and ego-challenging. Inevitably, some guy appears and says, “You remember me from college?”

Or if you’re lucky enough to speak at the venerable Brookings Institution in Washington, some elderly Russian gentleman, who is a regular attendee, will ask a question that’s as long as your speech. And he won’t stop, and he’ll come up afterward, during the book signing, to entertain you with the thoughts he didn’t get around to because he was so rudely interrupted by the moderator.

OK, the book tour really isn’t bad, except for having to give your book speech over and again. The people who come are usually intelligent and polite. They listen to you for an hour, rarely do the crazies show up anymore (they must be going to the torture speeches), some buy the book afterward and want to talk more, and some will spend a day of their lives reading the book (unlike most of the reviewers). Many of these people are worried about what’s happening in the world. They want to hear someone make sense of it for them.

No, I’m not going soft and abandoning dreams of bestsellerdom. I’ll get my second chance to fix things up for the paperback edition. I’m resolved on a new cover. What do you think about this one? No Laws of Gravity in the Post-American Era by Leslie H. Gelb and Oprah Winfrey.

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

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.