Wherever President Obama goes, a photo op is sure to follow. And when that photo op happens to involve a trip to the bookstore, well, almost nothing in the world gets the publishing industry to perk up as much as that.
And can you blame those bookish types? The president's ability to move units is perhaps topped only by you know who -- that's right, Oprah Winfrey. "Those are the two titans," Howard Yoon, a Washington-based literary agent, told Politico in 2009. "But it's more than just influence. It's also respect and trust. Here you have a sitting president who's not only trained as a legal scholar but also a New York Times best-selling author. His credibility and trust is extraordinarily high when it comes to book recommendations."
Indeed, Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams of My Father is regarded as one of the best books written by an eventual president, and his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope,continues to sell in large quantities. Combined, both tomes netted more than $5 million in royalties for Obama in 2009, about double the previous year's amount.
Clearly, Americans care very much about what the president writes. And they also apparently are quite interested in what he reads. An Aug. 20 visit to the Bunch of Grapes independent bookstore on Martha's Vineyard (pictured) attracted plenty of attention, in part because Obama snatched up an advance copy of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, the most talked-about book of the fall season. The book wasn't due for release until Aug. 31. It's too soon to know how much effect Obama will have on Franzen's sales -- and there are certainly other factors to consider, such as the author's appearance on the cover of Time magazine. But if history is any indication, the president's endorsement sure won't hurt.
A Range of Books Have Hit Obama's Shelves
During a March 8 speech on health care in Glenside, Pa., the president mentioned that he was reading Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt because "we've been talking about health care for nearly a century," and "he was talking about it, Teddy Roosevelt." The book has always been a steady seller for Random House's Modern Library imprint, but according to Bookscan, which measures approximately 75% of total book sales, the book has sold 7,000 copies this year, a notable uptick from previous years.
Several months before that speech, in August 2009, Obama released a list of books he was taking with him on vacation. While the mix naturally included heavy nonfiction fare like Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat & Crowded and David McCullough's biography of John Adams, the president also listed a handful of gritty, socially conscious novels by Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Kent Haruf.
Price's much-praised crime novel, Lush Life, first published in 2008 and issued in paperback in 2009, definitely benefited from being on Obama's reading radar. "The rate of sale [per Bookscan] immediately doubled when it was announced that President Obama was reading Lush Life, and this doubling in sales continued for several weeks," says James Meader, director of publicity for Price's paperback publisher, Picador. That sales bump no doubt contributed to Lush Life's overall sales reaching 60,000 copies, according to Bookscan.
Haruf's Plainsong was first published in 2000, and while the book has never been out of print, it was a somewhat unlikely pick by Obama. This book, too, appears to have benefited from Obama's selection. Bookscan reports it has sold an additional 5,000 copies in 2010.
Will He Ever Match Oprah?
The Obama sales bump clearly worked in novelist Joseph O'Neill's favor, too, after the president mentioned in a New York Times Magazine profile in May 2009 that he was reading O'Neill's novel Netherland. Though the paperback edition of Netherland wasn't due to be released until June 2, Vintage/ Anchor, citing an "Obama-cized double digit increase in sales" by up to 40%, moved up the paperback publication to May 7 and upped the first printing to 70,000 copies, according to the Associated Press. In total Netherland has sold more than 100,000 copies in both hardcover and paperback editions, according to Bookscan.
What's clear is that President Obama has the ability to influence sales of all sorts of different books. Less certain is if he will ever reach Oprah-levels of influence. To do that he would need to push a difficult book like Cormac McCarthy's The Road above the million-copies-sold plateau. Oprah has demonstrated the knack for doing just that many times in her book club's 14-year existence -- and she has at least one more shot before she migrates from syndication to pay TV on her own network next year. If Oprah ever gave up her book club, then we could start talking about who the next Reader in Chief would be.