The New York Times

September 2, 2004

Conservatives Cry Foul in Publishing Scrum


These should be heady days for conservative authors. "Unfit for Command," an unflattering appraisal of Senator John Kerry's service in Vietnam, is the fastest-selling book in the country. Ronald Kessler's sympathetic behind-the-scenes account of the Bush White House, "A Matter of Character," also graces the national best-seller lists.

Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Dick Morris, conservatives all, have produced some of this year's most popular books. Big publishing houses are practically falling over themselves to bring new conservative titles to market. President Bush is moving up in the polls, and the Republicans have at least an even chance of holding on to control of the House and the Senate come November.

So why are conservative authors feeling so beleaguered?

At a forum in Manhattan this week sponsored by American Compass, a direct-mail book club specializing in conservative viewpoints, authors and commentators deplored the lack of attention being paid to their point of view. Alleging a sort of liberal conspiracy to keep conservative authors from getting their books to the reading public, conservative authors said they had been forced to turn to scrappy, little-known alternative publishers.

"I find it disturbing personally as well as professionally that there is a need for a conservative alternative," said Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist and talk-show host.

Specialty publishers, like WND Books and Regnery, publisher of "Unfit for Command," might not have been born, Mr. Thomas said, "were it not for the gatekeepers at the publishing houses that keep out people and ideas with which they do not agree - all the while, of course, attesting to their tolerance, pluralism, academic freedom and diversity."

The notion that conservative authors cannot gain access to publishers, bookstores or the best-seller lists seems to crumble under close scrutiny, however. Although the best-seller lists have been dominated this year by more left-leaning books, like "Against All Enemies," by Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, a look further back reveals a different picture.

Since the beginning of the Bush administration, 18 of the 30 best-selling political hardcover books - among them "The O'Reilly Factor" by Bill O'Reilly, "Treason" by Ann Coulter and "Let Freedom Ring" by Mr. Hannity - have promoted conservative themes.

Ten of those 18 books were brought to market by divisions of big publishing houses, including Broadway Books and Crown, imprints of Random House; Warner Books, part of Time Warner; and ReganBooks, a division of HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and which has published, among other conservative authors, Mr. Thomas.

"It's a little bit facile of our author friends to suggest that they've been ignored or dissuaded,'' Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said in an interview. Among Random House's authors is Ms. Coulter, whose forthcoming book is "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).'' "I don't think there's any great conspiracy'' against conservatives, he said.

Going further back only adds to a picture of strength among conservative authors. On Election Day 1996, the top-selling political book was "Slouching Toward Gomorrah" by Robert H. Bork (ReganBooks).

Still, conservatives continue to argue that they are pushed aside, if not ignored entirely.

"There has been a bias," said L. Brent Bozell III, a commentator and syndicated columnist, whose new book, "Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media," was published in July by Crown Forum, a new imprint of Random House geared toward conservative readers.

"For years and years and years it was really just one publisher of conservative books, Regnery," he said of the publishing house, which began in 1947. "Others had gotten into it on a smaller scale, but the big boys didn't find it, for whatever reason, acceptable or didn't find it noteworthy or just didn't see the commercial value in conservative books."

Like Random House, other publishers have introduced specialty imprints for conservative authors. In July Penguin started its Sentinel imprint for conservative books; one of its first offerings, "A Matter of Character," quickly moved onto the best-seller lists.

Those moves reflect the success of conservative best sellers during the last decade, a trend that can be traced at least as far back as the 1992 publication of "The Way Things Ought to Be," by Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk-show host. The publisher was Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

But the publishing of political tracts in this country goes back much, much further, to the earliest days of the American colonies, and continues with little abatement to the present day.

Brad Miner, the executive editor of American Compass, the conservative book club, recounted an anecdote at the forum that came from "Lincoln at Cooper Union," the book by Harold Holzer, published this year by Simon & Schuster. The book explores Abraham Lincoln's pivotal 1860 speech in New York City about the westward spread of slavery.

Lincoln's address "was quickly reprinted and sold at a bargain," Mr. Miner said, "25 cents per dozen, $1 per hundred with a penny extra for postage.''

Those reprints ''constituted crucial ammunition for the information-starved, politically insatiable America," he continued.

While publishers charge a bit more today, "isn't that what each of us here today is trying to do, feed the hungry?" Mr. Miner asked. His American Compass is owned by Bookspan, a joint venture of Time Warner and Bertelsmann.

Most political books are intended not as conversion tracts but more as hymnals or prayer books, guides for the already converted.

The idea, said John Podhoretz, the author of "Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane," published in February by St. Martin's Press, "is to introduce ideas into the general discussion for people who are hungry for them, readers who need argumentation because they go out to their water cooler and they have a discussion and they want to have material to buttress their own positions."

After seeing President Clinton railed against by the right for eight years, many liberals have been adopting the tactics that have long made conservative books so appealing to so many.

"As a rule these books avoid any evidence that would contradict their premises," Mr. Miner said. "All in all, the level of civility or lack of it in the campaign of 2004 is reminiscent of 1804 or 1864, except without dueling or civil war. At least not yet."

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