The lineup of potential presidential candidates is a mishmash of senators, governors, former big-city mayors and a retired four-star Army general.
But nearly all of them share one title: published author.
“You’re not a real candidate, Pinocchio, if you haven’t written your own book,” said Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News. “If you know everybody else is doing a book, you’ve got to do a book.”
The crowded field of early candidates has created a traffic jam of titles, from the rags-to-riches memoir to the earnest political manifesto.
All of them could be called candidate lit, a publishing mini-genre that includes runaway best sellers (“The Audacity of Hope” by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois) and unqualified duds (“Between Worlds,” a memoir by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico).
For candidates, writing a book is a way to make money, build gravitas and grab media attention. (They can also use a memoir as a dumping ground for past unpleasantries, paving the way for the campaign-trail line “I addressed that in my book.”)
For publishers the 2008 campaign season is the time to rerelease forgotten titles, sign unpublished candidates and, if they’re lucky, laugh all the way to the bank as they reap sales from best-selling political books. “What you have, essentially, is a celebrity with built-in press coverage,” said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Obama’s latest book, for example, has sold more than a million copies in hardcover.
Obama’s publisher, Crown, just reissued his 1995 memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” in hardcover to capitalize on renewed interest.
Obama’s recent success has revived the notion of experiencing the pace and trappings of a presidential campaign through a book tour, said Chuck Todd, editor of the daily political tip sheet Hotline.
“The book publishing business has become the new exploratory committee,” Todd said. “For Obama, it was a way of testing the waters. That’s when you find out: Are you interesting enough to get enough interviews? Can you get people to show up for a signing?”
The tradition of candidate books dates back at least to the 1950s, when John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, introduced himself as a viable presidential candidate with “Profiles in Courage,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957.
But even now that book is plagued by accusations that it was ghostwritten by Theodore Sorenson, a Kennedy aide. Many politicians employ ghostwriters, and some, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, are careful to give them prominent credit on the covers.
Still, memories of “Profiles in Courage” have driven many candidates to produce their own versions. “They all think they’re going to capture the ‘Profiles in Courage’ moment,” Todd said.