Right Books, Wrong Time

New York publishers discover conservatives—just a little too late.

Matalin: a sign the end is nigh

Because they are notoriously slow to catch on to trends, big media conglomerates are classic financial contraindicators. Time Warner agreed to be bought by AOL for stock at AOL’s peak. Dow 36,000 was published just as the Dow was about to crash. When Fortune put Krispy Kreme on the cover in July 2003, it was time to ditch the doughnut-maker. And as Barry Ritholtz reminds us, Business Week ran a cover story proclaiming the “Death of Equities” in 1979, which was a great time to buy stocks. Frequently, by the time a good business idea filters its way to the top of big media conglomerates—into the editorial meetings and executive strategy sessions—the easy money has already been made and a top has been reached.

Given this, right-wing scribes, and perhaps even Republicans at large, shouldn’t be celebrating the news that establishment publisher Simon & Schuster, a division of Viacom, hired Bush loyalist Mary Matalin to run a new imprint to publish conservative books. Indeed, the move encapsulates the ways in which big media have been led astray.

First, there’s no question that conservative books have been a big business for the past several years. But as with investing, it’s dangerous to throw resources into a business after it’s experienced explosive growth. And S&S is at least the third-mover. In 2003 Penguin Group (USA) started conservative imprint Sentinel, which churns out mind-candy for the National Review crowd. Random House has started Crown Forum, whose Web site contains handy links to the right-wing echo chamber. All are trying to mimic the success of Regnery Publishing, the ur-conservative publisher that brought us Unfit for Command.

Second, it’s always worrisome when a large corporation simultaneously commits resources to a market and admits its cluelessness about said market. All Simon & Schuster’s bosses and editors seem to know about conservatives is that they buy books that pander to them and conform to their worldview. As Louise Burke, the publisher of S&S’s Pocket Books, put it, “I couldn’t be happier to have the opportunity to launch a line of books that will resonate with the great many readers who clearly want to explore their ideas about current affairs and the direction for America’s future.” (Her italics.)

The consignment of conservative books to a walled-off enclave is also telling. The publishers want the kind of profits that Unfit for Command can bring without having to put it on their office shelves. Simon & Schuster is the Tiffany publisher; its idea of a conservative writer is a sophisticated polemicist like the deceased Allan Bloom, not Sean Hannity. How many book editors repair to Brooklyn at night and boast about editing Mona Charen’s latest? They have to isolate these units in order to make them internally palatable.

The choice of a conservative to run the line is also pretty uninspired. For Matalin, the deal is less about the books than it is about the permanent campaign. The canned quotes in the S&S press release sound like they were written by Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. “The unstoppable quest for human and economic liberty is remaking the world, literally before our eyes,” she said. Of course, she won’t be actually poring over the galleys looking for dangling participles. Rather, her role will be more like that of a political strategist—a profession she’ll continue to practice—providing “conceptual editing.”

Matalin’s partisan hackishness almost certainly guarantees she will publish only the most predictable conservative writings. (Rep. Chris Shays this week noted charged that “this Republican party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.” Would Matalin sign up Shays to write a book on the topic? Of course not. She’s far more likely to publish a memoir by flack Scott McClellan—It Ain’t Lying If You Believe It?than by a Republican who might tell conservatives something they might not want to hear.)

And one wonders whether the presence of Matalin will convince hard-core Bushies that they should publish with—and buy books from—a unit of Viacom, where the profits are upstreamed into the same corporate cesspool that holds the earnings of bêtes noires MTV and CBS News?

A more important point: Given their triumph in last November’s elections (and their behavior since), the Republicans have nowhere to go but down. Indeed, polls and nimble online right-wing media types (Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan) are already starting to call a top in the Republicans’ stock. The House and the Senate can’t agree on the basics of a budget, the dwindling but vital core of northeast Republicans can’t abide their southern and western compadres, and Tom DeLay is morphing into Jim Wright.

Right-wing books of recent vintage have generally succeeded by attacking liberal Democrats and government or by glorifying fearless Republican leaders. Given that the Republicans control every branch of government, they’re running out of targets. (Deliver Us From Harry Reid?) And the unctuous butt-kissing books are starting to wear thin. After two weeks, Ari Fleischer’s memoir is barely clinging to its spot on the Times best-seller list at No. 15. (He’s in danger of being bumped off by Kirstie Alley’s How To Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life.)

Could the appetite for political books—and for right-wing political books in particular—have peaked already? Only four of the Times’ top 15 sellers this week are political. Of them, only two are the sort that Matalin would want to publish: Fleischer’s book and Mark Levin’s Men in Black, a Regnery offering that details how the Supreme Court (a body with seven members appointed by Republican presidents) is ruining America. The paperback best-seller list doesn’t look much better.

There’s a final reason to be wary of S&S’s move. S&S Publisher David Rosenthal* said that hiring Mary Matalin “seemed liked a cool idea.” Whenever a top executive at a publicly held company says he is doing something because it is “cool,” it’s time to flee.

*Correction, March 29: The article originally misstated the first name of Simon & Schuster’s publisher. His name is David Rosenthal, not Steve Rosenthal.