When the Financial Times published a report this week claiming that Barack and Michelle Obama had signed a two-book contract with Penguin Random House for $65 million, eyebrows across the publishing industry moved discreetly upwards. The exact amount of the heftiest book advances are not, as a rule, made public, and the individuals who passed this information on to the Financial Times are identified in that publication only as “people briefed on the auction.” That could mean anything from an employee of PRH to an editor from a competing house repeating something he was told by the agent who called to inform him that he’d lost his bid on the books. If the Obamas really did receive $65 million, it could make theirs the largest book advance ever paid, but skepticism about that number seems widespread.
Could any single book possibly be worth half of that sum? (According to “a publishing official with knowledge of the negotiations” who spoke to Vox, the former president’s book will be a memoir of his years in office, while Michelle Obama will write “an inspirational work for young people that will draw upon her life story”; the joint advance might very well not be evenly divided between the two.) The key factor in this deal is the sale of worldwide rights by the Obamas to a company with divisions across the globe, each one of which will have anted up its portion of the total. With international sales, the Obamas’ books could easily sell 5 to 10 million copies, enough to provide a profit for their publisher even if they receive advances of $25 million or even $30 million.
Obama is a popular figure in the U.S., but perhaps even more so abroad, particularly in Europe, where people buy far more books per capita than in America. There, as here, Obama is seen as the embodiment of liberal ideals currently under threat by the sort of populist and nationalist forces that elected Donald Trump or prompted Brexit. The readers who embrace those ideals, whose fired-up defense of them filled streets all over the world with demonstrators during January’s Women’s March, will be exceptionally motivated to pick up books by the former president and first lady. The deal also brings with it something more ineffable, a factor that can come in handy when negotiating for other titles: prestige. There are plenty of best-selling authors who’d love to be able to say that their editor also works with the Obamas.
Former presidents and their family members typically sign handsome book deals after the end of their terms. Bill Clinton got a reputed $15 million advance for My Life when he left office, and his wife Hillary was said to have received $14 million for Hard Choices in 2014. George W. Bush earned a rumored $10 million for Decision Points. These books sell, very well, a curious truth when you consider how low they rank as sources among the very people, historians and journalists, charged with writing definitive accounts of the inner workings of presidential administrations; experts rarely cite them. The assumption is that presidential autobiographies will be circumspect and neutered, containing little that’s new, candid, or interesting.
Obama is unique among presidents for having found success and acclaim as an author before his political career vaulted to the heights. Sweetening the deal for his publisher is the unfamiliar possibility that his book might actually be good, a potential driver for even more sales. But it also won’t particularly matter if it’s not. Presidential memoirs are given as Christmas and Father’s Day gifts, purchased and left on side tables as emblems of their owners’ political sentiments and otherwise acquired by people with no great desire to explore their contents. Often as not, they represent a vote of support, a badge of affiliation, a souvenir. They are the tony equivalent of a commemorative plate. Actually reading them seems beside the point.