Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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569 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Can’t get your masterpiece published? Blame Tony Blair

Chauncey Mabe

Or Karl Rove. Or Sarah Palin. Or Laura Bush. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Ted Kennedy. Or Bill Clinton. Why? Because political memoirists get such massive advances, publishers have no money left over for your book.

Blair, for example, received an advance estimated somewhere between $7.5 and $10 million for his political memoir, The Journey, due out in September, according to USA Today. Clinton, Bush, Palin, Kennedy all received similar sums.

And such ludicrously outsized payouts are among the factors forcing John Edgar Wideman, among America’s most distinguished living fiction writers, into self-publishing his new collection of short stories, reports Publishers Weekly. Titled Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, the book will be available only via, a print-on-demand service, beginning March 14.

Wideman, a National Book Award finalist and two-time PEN/Faulkner winner, cited changes in publishing and a desire to retain more control over his work for his decision to leave long-time publisher Houghton Mifflin. But he also named “the blockbuster syndrome”—the industry’s push to find bestselling titles at all costs.

The focus on blockbusters “has gotten out of hand. Unless you become a blockbuster, your book disappears quickly,” Wideman says. “It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish.”

Thing is, while a book like Blair’s Journey, or Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue or Ted Kennedy’s True Compass sell hundreds of thousands of copies and linger on the bestseller lists for weeks, that doesn’t mean they bring much profit to the publishers.

I don’t know how many copies of a book have to move to earn back, say, the $8 mil Kennedy or Clinton or Laura Bush received, but I expect it’s a virtual impossibility for such a book to edge into the black. If someone out there can explain publishing economics, please, have at it.

And $8 million for what? A political memoir is mainly a celebrity autobiography. So we’ll get to hear Tony Blair’s apologia for clinging to George Bush’s pants leg and taking his country into a stupid and ruinous war? Or Karl Rove, owning up to some mistakes, reports The New York Times, but mainly defending the Bush presidency for “impressive, durable and significant” achievements?

Uh, yeah, Karl, the wrecked economy looks like it’s going to endure for a good long time, and, boy, is that impressive and significant. And get a load out of the title Rove chose for his book: Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-HA!

Good one, Turd Blossom (that’s George Bush’s nickname for his old pal and top advisor). But let me ask: What kind of courage did you use when you launched a smear campaign against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary race in South Carolina?

You remember, Karl, launching a whisper campaign that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was in reality his own illegitimate black child? In case you’ve forgotten, here’s an account by Richard H. Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, from the Boston Globe.

What? You didn’t have anything to do with that? Right. Of course not.

It’s easy to see that my politics skew hard to the left. But when it comes to political memoirs, I’m bipartisan. I can’t understand why anyone would want to read a fat, overblown, self-exculpatory press release from some “public servant.” I didn’t read Sarah Palin, true, but I didn’t read Ted Kennedy, either.

—From Open Page (5 March 2010)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury