News & Politics

Presidential Candidates Struggle to Stand Out in Book Sales, Too

Whether demolishing a cell phone or shooting the tax code with a rifle, the many 2016 presidential candidates are finding some…creative ways to stand out. But even in a downright wacky election cycle, the good old-fashioned memoir remains a publicity must. Many of this year’s “Yes, I’m running” announcements were accompanied by hardcover releases in which White House hopefuls told their stories, touted their records, and tried to take control of their public personae.

These reads are so ubiquitous in Washington bookstores that it’s easy to overlook them. It doesn’t help that most have the same type of vague titles that swell with conviction without actually explaining anything (Unintimidated, Rising to the Challenge, A Time for Truth, etc.) Or that their covers all depict the author looking either stoically into the camera or dreamily into the distance, as though glimpsing a better America on the horizon. Eventually they can start to run together, as their performance at local bookstores reflects.

“They are selling consistently, but nothing is running out the door,” says Sarah Baline, Events Director at Kramerbooks. “Right now with the field being so open, especially on the Republican side, there are so many candidates and so many different books that I think it’s a little diffuse.”

At Politics and Prose, as at Kramerbooks, the drama of the last few months has yet to translate into book sales. Summer saw the Hillary Clinton campaign falter, and fringe contenders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina surge in the polls. But none of this impacted their performance at Washington’s premier independent bookstore. Director of Marketing and Publicity Lena Little says there has been “no significant change in sales” in Clinton’s Hard Choices, Carson’s One Nation, or Fiorina’s Rising to the Challenge since May.

Nielsen BookScan ratings show that Clinton’s 2014 memoir is still out-performing those of her competitors on a national scale. Likewise at Washington bookstores, Hard Choices continues to beat out its GOP counterparts even though sales have dwindled.

“I would say Hillary’s book has sold the most copies, but otherwise it’s actually fairly even,” says Baline. “When it came out there was so, so much interest. It hasn’t been at that level since, but we have continued to sell the book.”

While interest in candidates’ books has plateaued in some places, it seems practically non-existent in others. “They’re not that in demand, I’ll say that,” says Marquis Gibson, a bookseller at Politics and Prose who supervises the store’s satellite location at the 14th street Busboys and Poets. According to Gibson, insider political titles like Joy-Ann Reid’s recent Fracture have gotten a great response, but the store doesn’t keep many candidates’ offerings on the shelves, as customers just don’t ask for them. Even Hard Choices has sold only “about two paperbacks in the past couple months.”

Why the lukewarm response? It could be a matter of timing. Elections, like the Christmas shopping season, seem to drag on longer every time around. And Gibson says interest might perk up once we’re further into the slog. But it’s also possible that after all the media scrutiny and viral-or-bust high jinks, people have simply had enough of this crowd. Baline suggested that readers may be “already fatigued” with the election, and “the fact that it’s September of 2015 and we have a whole other 14 months to go.”

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