PW’s Persons of the Year 2018
Since the election of Donald Trump as president, many things have changed—including the way PW’s annual Person of the Year is chosen. Instead of selecting one person, as we have typically done, this year we are honoring the publishers of the bestselling Trump-related books. We took this approach to reflect the importance of the role that the Trump administration played in spurring the publication—and sales—of dozens and dozens of books. This decision also highlights the important role books play in furthering the debate about our current political climate. With so many Trump books flooding the market, we selected the publishers of the five top-selling titles as of mid-November.
Steve Rubin, president and publisher, Henry Holt
The first Trump book to make a splash in 2018 also created the biggest controversy. Henry Holt released Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff on January 5, four days earlier than was planned. Holt’s original rollout was undermined by fast-moving events that began January 3 with the publication of highlights from the embargoed book by the Guardian.
The Guardian’s move prompted New York magazine, which had first serial rights, to post its excerpts, which included detailed accounts of infighting and general dysfunction at the White House and led to widespread news coverage of the book—and increased attacks on the book, author, and Steve Bannon by Trump. In addition to blasting Wolff’s credibility, the president directed his lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter to Holt threatening a libel and defamation lawsuit if it went ahead with the release of the book. The letter led to even more news coverage and brought a firm response from Holt, which issued the following statement: “Henry Holt confirms that we received a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney for President Trump. We see Fire and Fury as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book.”
Holt’s Steven Rubin says that the company wasn’t surprised by Trump’s reaction and in some ways expected it. “I always said, ‘If we are lucky, Trump will tweet about this,’ ” Rubin notes. “He did considerably better: he threatened to sue us for libel, among other ludicrous accusations.” (Trump never followed through with any legal action.)
Rubin published Wolff’s biography of Rupert Murdoch in 2008 when he was at Doubleday and says, “I not only hugely admire Wolff as a fearless reporter and stylish, beguiling writer but I like him because he is an irresistibly engaging person, on and off the page.” When he moved to Holt, Rubin and John Sterling signed Wolff for another book, but at dinner one night, Wolff proposed what became Fire and Fury.
“Once Michael outlined what he wanted to do, it was a no-brainer,” Rubin says. “I knew we had to publish this book, so we did a two-book deal.”
Although Rubin had no qualms about publishing Fire and Fury, he made sure that Holt covered all of its legal bases. In addition to what he calls a “crack legal team,” he also cites the work of Sterling, whom Rubin described as a “tough editor with a proven track record with journalists.” And Rubin says that Wolff is a writer who understands what is necessary in sourcing. He believed that the result would be a “game-changing book.”
Noting that Wolff was the first person to pull together all the pieces of the dysfunction taking place in the Trump administration, Rubin cites Fire and Fury’s first-mover status as being key to the book’s tremendous success (2.8 million books sold across all formats). “Ultimately, Fire and Fury lit the way,” he says. “It is the first book to show in no uncertain terms that we were entering the twilight zone.”
Though sales of Fire and Fury peaked early in the year, Rubin believes there is still life left in the book. A trade paperback edition will be published in January, and HBO may release a film based on Fire and Fury later in 2019. “As far as I can see, as long as he is in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., there is boundless interest in the unpredictable machinations of Trump,” Rubin says. “Fire and Fury became a piece of history and should have a long and happy life on the backlist.”
Jonathan Karp, president and publisher, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing
Jonathan Karp is quick to deflect any personal credit for the success of Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House. “Taking credit for the success of Bob Woodward is like taking credit for the weather,” Karp says, noting that Woodward has been an S&S author for 44 years. Karp also points to S&S editorial director Alice Mayhew as an integral part of Woodward’s publishing success. But, he insists, “the two people most responsible for Fear are Bob Woodward and President Trump. We didn’t publish Fear any differently than the last three Bob Woodward books, which were just as revelatory and well reported as this one. What was different this time was the country itself—the desire among readers for insight into Trump and, for some, evidence to be used against Trump. Fear delivered powerfully on both counts.”
Fear also delivered rapid sales. In fact, Fear had the largest first week of sales of any book in S&S history, selling a total of more than 1.1 million copies across all formats. The book also drew the ire of Trump: “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
S&S released the book on September 11, and Karp says he “recognized the significance of choosing that date.” He adds, “As Bob Woodward memorably said in interviews, ‘People better wake up to what’s happening.’ ” Karp explains that all of Woodward’s books feature national security as a major topic, and Fear is no exception. The book, he says, “illustrates the ways in which the Trump administration’s actions are putting our nation at risk.”
Karp notes that beyond Fear, which is nearing sales of two million copies, S&S published a number of books this year that look at various aspects of the Trump presidency. Two months prior to the publication of Fear, it published The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisisby University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, which explores the underlying forces that have made the Trump presidency possible. Other bestselling Trump-related books from S&S include Everything Trump Touches Dies by Republican political consultant Rick Wilson and It’s Even Worse Than You Think, David Cay Johnston’s examination of Trump’s regulatory policies. And on the day of the midterm elections, S&S published Stephen Colbert’s illustrated protest book, Whose Boat Is This Boat, followed by Proof of Collusion by professor Seth Abramson, both of which hit bestseller lists.
Karp doesn’t disagree that Trump was a big factor in book sales this year. “When I was a newspaper reporter, I was taught that three incidents is a trend, and I’ve just named five Trump-related bestsellers published in 2018,” he says.
Bob Miller, president, Amy Einhorn, publisher, Flatiron Books
As soon as Trump fired James Comey as director of the FBI in May 2017, there was little doubt that a book was in Comey’s future. Flatiron’s Bob Miller says he and Amy Einhorn had that same feeling after meeting Comey.
“As soon as we met Comey, we knew we wanted to publish his book,” Miller says. “He was surprisingly funny, but more than that, we were so impressed by his storytelling ability. If he could write the way he talked—and it turned out he could—we knew we would have an amazing book on our hands.”
In acquiring the book, Flatiron—which, like Fire and Fury publisher Holt, is owned by Macmillan—also bought rights in Germany and the U.K., “so that our sister companies in those countries could publish with us,” Miller says. “This helped us control the content and the media when it came time to publish, which is so important for a book of this nature.”
Flatiron released Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership April 17, and it became an immediate hit, selling about 600,000 copies across all formats in its first week. Miller says part of the appeal of Higher Loyalty is that Comey did not write it in response to specific policies but rather intended it to address the nation’s “institutional values that are in danger of being eroded by the Trump administration’s disregard for them.”
Miller says he and Einhorn knew that, because Comey was using his career to illustrate various types of leadership, Higher Loyalty would be relevant regardless of what happened in the news cycle—although he concedes that the early sales of the book benefitted from “a bit of a perfect storm,” noting, “As the Mueller investigation continued, Trump’s obsession with Comey grew, and he couldn’t stop tweeting about Comey.”
Despite Trump’s attacks, Comey, with the exception of “a few strategically brilliant tweets,” stayed quiet, Miller says. “He would only break his silence with the publication of his book, and by that time, everyone wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Miller believes readers will want to hear what Comey has to say for some time: “There will be interest in Trump as long as he is in office, and for a long time after that, because he is putting democracy itself to the greatest test in its history. We think that A Higher Loyalty will be read as an important historical document for years to come, and that it will have a long life in the academic market, as well.” The book has now sold about one million copies total in print, e-book, and audio.
Eric Nelson, v-p, editorial director, Broadside Books
Though all three of this year’s top-selling Trump books were critical of the president, Trump has a loyal base who supported books that defended him and cast doubt on his attackers. The leading title in this group, with total sales in all formats of about 400,000 copies, is The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump by Gregg Jarrett, a long-time Fox News anchor who is now a Fox legal analyst. Broadside’s Eric Nelson says the genesis of The Russia Hoax was a lunch he had with Jarrett in fall 2017 to talk about potential books. Jarrett had never written a book, but, according to Nelson, as the Mueller investigation rolled on, “the topic had gotten under his skin in a way nothing had before.”
Once the deal was done, Nelson says it took about five to six months to get books on the shelves. He adds that it wasn’t written in response to any other books; it was a “methodical sorting of known facts and legal arguments.” Jarrett’s goal was not to bring new facts to light but to “provide a framework readers could use to understand everything that happens with the Justice Department going forward,” Nelson says.
Aware of the volatile political climate, Nelson had the manuscript reviewed by lawyers and “political obsessives,” and also by “anti-Trump partisans, to make sure we knew what outside scrutiny would look like when it came,” he says. “We were worried all along that the book might get overtaken by other books that were salacious, careless, and conspiracy minded.”
Published on July 24, The Russia Hoax was the top title in the country the week of its release, selling more than 72,000 print copies, according to NPD BookScan. The book got a big assist from Trump, who, on August 1, tweeted, “Congratulations to @GreggJarrett on The TREMENDOUS success of his just out book, The Russia Hoax.”
Nelson also believes Jarrett hit a nerve with readers: “As Gregg says, Hillary Clinton broke the law but not the rules. Trump broke the rules but not the law. And we see which one Washington takes more seriously.”
Like the publishers of books critical of Trump, Nelson thinks The Russia Hoax will continue to sell well. “Every day, I think Trump has run out ways to be interesting, but he’s a bull who now owns his own china shop—every day he breaks a new unwritten rule,” he adds. “We probably have six more years of Trump controlling the national conversation, and the bestseller list.”
Broadside, a HarperCollins imprint, will publish the paperback edition of The Russia Hoax, with updates, in spring. And Nelson says there could be more to come: “We’ll eventually have to publish a new book on Mueller if we really want to keep giving readers what they want.”
Rolf Zettersten, president and publisher, Center Street
An imprint of the Hachette Book Group, Center Street has a long history of publishing conservative voices—among them John Ashcroft, Jim DeMint, Bill Frist, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul—and signed Jeanine Pirro’s new book in October 2017. Rolf Zettersten says he was excited to work with the Fox News personality because of “her reputation as a conservative voice who pulls no punches.” Moreover, he notes, he thought that with her background as a lawyer and the fact that she was the former district attorney for Westchester County, N.Y., she would bring a unique perspective to what was going on in Washington following the election of Trump. That view was confirmed when Center Street editorial director Kate Hartson met with Pirro as part of the acquisition process and was impressed with her communication style and substance.
Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy was released July 17 and has, to date, sold 350,000 copies across all formats. Zettersten attributes Liar’s popularity in part to the fresh insights Pirro brought to the work, and to her willingness to express opinions that are critical of liberals and weak-kneed conservatives. For example, he says, “Pirro was one of the first and most consistent voices who called for the resignation of the attorney general.” She also, he argues, “revealed new information about the liberal campaign to undermine Trump’s presidency, as well as resistance from those who want to maintain the status quo in Washington.”
Another point in Pirro’s favor was her ties to Trump, his family, and some of his aides. For the book, she interviewed members of the Trump family and White House officials, including counsel to the president Kellyanne Conway and chief of staff John F. Kelly.
And Zettersten says he was sure Pirro’s fans would appreciate her take on events: “Pirro has a vast audience who look to her to provide the facts. Just because a topic has been covered by mainstream media, that doesn’t mean that it has been covered accurately.”
Notables of the Year
In addition to naming six publishers of Trump books as our Persons of the Year, PW selected five other industry members who had notable achievements in 2018.