The past six months have been good to the book-publishing industry. Book sales, helped along by pandemic-induced lockdowns, are up. Adult-fiction sales have risen 30 percent year over year. And most of all, Trump hasn’t been in office. “Postelection, there’s been a breath of Thank God, we don’t have to do Trump books anymore,” one editor told me.
The lull has come to an end. After a brief reprieve from the dishy ticktocks that emerged from the turbulence of the Trump era, publishers are gearing up for a flurry of books detailing the final days and aftermath of his presidency. The Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election and Michael Wolff’s third Trump book, Landslide, kicked things off on July 13. A week after that came Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s second Trump book, I Alone Can Fix It. In the coming months, we will see volumes by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and the New York Times’ Peter Baker, the Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, the Times’ Jeremy W. Peters, the Times’ Maggie Haberman, and the Washington Examiner’s David M. Drucker.
Most of the publishing insiders I spoke to responded to the coming wave of Trump books with an audible sigh and an eye roll. “After the first few, all of these books seemed repetitive,” the editor said. “At a certain point, you had to wonder — do readers really care about some absurd thing some aide heard Trump say? I’m skeptical about this current crop of books, but my skepticism has been proven wrong again and again.”
Publishers were initially slow to capitalize on the chaos of the Trump era. When the journalist David Cay Johnston pitched a book about Trump in 2015, he was met with silence from big publishers. (He did end up selling the book, which was released in 2016.) At first, no one thought Trump would get the Republican nomination, then no one thought he would win the presidency. Books take months, if not years, to produce — by the time Trump volumes started rolling off the presses, the thinking went, he would be back hosting The Apprentice.
The Trump boom didn’t really begin until January 2018, when Wolff’s Fire and Fury set the template for future blockbusters: full of juicy detail, mired in the swamp. Above all, it made Trump mad. Thanks in part to a pathetic cease-and-desist letter sent by the president’s lawyers, the book was an instant megaseller and inaugurated the industry’s version of a gold rush.
Success followed a predictable pattern. Excerpts and scoops would be published in tip sheets, newspapers, and magazines. Trump would respond by calling the author a hack and a liar. Sales shot upward before falling just as quickly. Fire and Fury sold nearly 2 million copies in three weeks before it faded from the headlines. Its paperback edition sold fewer than 10,000.
For people with #resistance in their bio, hitting BUY NOW was irresistible. For publishers, it was almost like printing money. In 2020, Mary L. Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Woodward’s Rage all sold hundreds of thousands of hardback copies. NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean called 2020 a “record-setter.” Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt credited these sales with helping to revive the flagging chain. “The company had lost its direction to a considerable degree and above all had lost its confidence,” he said. “That sense of having bumper days and long queues and having to rush to unpack cartons and get the stock out there — that brought back a lot of the joy of bookselling.”
For many publishing employees, however, the feeling was hardly one of jubilation. “After Trump won, we were horrified,” a former big-five marketing director told me. “The attention, the enrichment of people we suddenly decided were on our side because they decided to say something mean about Trump — it all felt gross.”
The Trump boom also had career repercussions. “These last few years, if you weren’t working on the big Trump book, you’re under the radar,” one senior Simon & Schuster publicist told me. (“Hanging out with Joe and Mika is kind of fun,” the publicist added, referring to the hosts of Morning Joe, but it’s “weird to get involved in that excitement, though, because you don’t give a shit!”) For editors of fiction and “serious” nonfiction, the past few years were a nightmare. “There was a sense that people had spent their entire careers knowing how to publish serious, important books by serious, important people, and they were getting blown out of the water by trashy, shat-out tell-alls,” said the former marketing director.
It doesn’t help morale that readers don’t particularly seem to care either. “People approached these books like merch,” said literary agent Kate McKean. “We all buy books we intend to read but don’t — it’s not that the content doesn’t matter, but people buy them the way they buy a shirt, a hat, a sticker.”
“Many of these political books are bought to express support and opposition to something,” said Matt Latimer, founder of the literary agency Javelin, “to make you feel like you’re doing something. And you are! Many of the books that were published did upset the president.”
Success was hardly guaranteed (Siege, Wolff’s follow-up to Fire and Fury, sold fewer than 50,000 copies in hardcover), but every book at least had a chance of selling hundreds of thousands. For publishers, who will tell you their industry is really a highbrow form of gambling, these odds were too good to pass up. “Every editor I know is exhausted by this shit, but it might sell so you have to publish it,” said an editor at Hachette. “You can talk endlessly about this guy, even if there isn’t that much interesting to say. Anyway, these books are easy to make.”
Now, we’re entering what one Penguin Random House publicist calls the “Downfall stage” of Trump’s presidency, referring to the film. “It’s the same people who read books about Hitler’s last days,” the publicist said. “It’s victory porn.”
That trend of righteously performative book buying may have dissipated, however, now that Trump has lost his dual bully pulpits: the presidency and his Twitter account. He has seemingly lost his preternatural ability to dictate the news cycle — and thus draw attention to the anti-Trump books. “The very tweets that drove sales of [James Comey’s] A Higher Loyalty and Fire and Fury — that’s no longer available as a source of immediate Trump complaint converted to anti-Trump sales gratification,” one senior editor at Macmillan told me. “I think there are many people hoping that this continues, but we’re starting to see that the foundations of it are pretty shaky going forward.”
Many editors, moreover, noted that interest has shifted toward other issues, most notably racial justice. “The same people in the industry who were acquiring Trump books are now buying books like How to Be an Antiracist and So You Want to Talk About Race,” said the Hachette editor. “That has become just as much of a hashtag trend as Trump books were. You’re seeing insane money for these books now, and it’s the same editors buying them — people who know how to follow a trend.”
While there was considerable skepticism about the sales prospects of books by former Trump officials like Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos, everyone agreed a book by Trump himself would mean a sales bonanza for publishers. “Every time a new book comes out rehashing the last four years, we come one step closer to publishing Trump,” one Penguin Random House publicist said.
But a suitor among publishing’s big five has yet to emerge. The head of the likeliest candidate, Trump’s former publisher Simon & Schuster, told staffers in May the company would not be acquiring a book by the 45th president. Instead, there is speculation that Trump may be a good fit for a new, independent, “anti-cancel-culture” publisher, All Seasons Press, founded by former Simon & Schuster and Hachette executives.
Even if Trump doesn’t publish a presidential memoir, one thing is clear: Books about him aren’t going away. “There are 15 or 20 books about Nixon coming out in the next year,” Latimer told me. “I hate to tell you this, but this is not going to be the end of Trump books, no matter what.”