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Is Trump Ruining Book Sales?

Authors and publishers alike are finding that it's hard to sell books in a political climate where truth is stranger than fiction.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“I was told that it just came out at a really bad time, but that that was true across the board,” says author Alana Massey. Back in 2015, her debut essay collection, All The Lives I Want, was sold for a solid six-figure deal to Grand Central Publishing, home to authors such as Melissa Broder, Candace Bushnell, and Nicholas Sparks. Massey’s book was released just ten days after Trump’s ban in early February, and though it received plenty of positive press, it came at a time when national attention was almost entirely focused on politics. Due to the political circumstances, Massey said, “I was sort of jokingly told that any books that weren’t political, dystopian, or both, weren’t really selling.” Trump’s Presidential win has sent a rippling effect through the book publishing world, affecting authors, booksellers, editors, agents, and publicists: In a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.           

It’s not that the arts aren’t relevant in Trump’s America. In fact, eliminating material support for the arts has been a central tenet of his agenda. When Sopan Deb of The New York Times reported back in March that Trump proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), this idea was met with a plea by PEN America to stop it. The petition received over 200,000 signatures, including from literary titans like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in an interview with CBS News, “We would lose funding. And for a non-profit ... that matters, you know?” It does matter: Between 1965 to 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts granted 128,000 grants that totaled five billion dollars. That’s chump change for a federal program, but in the arts, that kind of money goes a long way. In June, the NEA announced that they will support the arts in every state over the coming year. If that funding is taken away, the impact on American literature will be disastrous.

But while this news took center stage, the fact is that the literary world is already being hit hard by the Trump administration. Monika Woods, a literary agent at Curtis Brown LTD, said that amid the rapid news cycle from fall of 2016 to early 2017, “Fiction writers were booked on ‘Good Morning America’ and they had to be rebooked and rebooked and rebooked. Even New York Times bestselling authors with books out in Fall 2016 struggled.” Industry insiders noted that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History, for example, failed to meet sales expectations, even though both authors had their previous books on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Sarah Bowlin, former editor at Henry Holt and current literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management, echoed Woods’s thoughts, saying, “When you have a news day of four different revelations, there’s less room in a cultural conversation to talk about a debut or bestselling author.” Granted, there were some established authors whose sales seemed impervious to the election: With Swing Time, Zadie Smith had her best first-week sales ever, with more than 9,000 copies flying off the shelves. Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, meanwhile, made the New York Times Bestsellers List for Hardcover Fiction, continuing his winning streak of sorts from his 2012 novel, Telegraph Avenue. Both Swing Time and Moonglow were released in November 2016. Some books even benefited from the timing. A spokesperson for HarperCollins said that because of the election period, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s controversial memoir of Appalachia, sold over one million copies since being published last year. But for others, the news cycle has sucked the air out of the room. The disastrous and almost comically incompetent Trump presidency has both frightened the reading market away from popular books and functioned as a kind of mass entertainment with which it is difficult to compete, with Senate hearings and official testimonies becoming must-see TV.

There’s also a question of what kind of writing is relevant in this new era: Many books being released in the wake of the Trump election were written with a very different understanding of the world than the one we have now. Melissa Febos, whose memoir Abandon Me was released in February, wrote a startlingly intimate work about family, belonging, and emotional need, personal themes that can feel tangentially relevant to the broader public conversation post-November. “There was this assumption that Clinton was going to win and the spring would be the best time to publish a book because all the feminists would be feeling celebratory and buying books,” she said. “When Clinton didn’t win, it was a really awkward feeling. … The idea of promoting something in that atmosphere felt gross.” Like many others, the election has caused Febos to reconsider her priorities. “I had been working on a synopsis for a second essay collection about girlhood and coming of age as female in this country, and I told my agent that I need more time because I need to rethink it. I was writing it thinking we would be under a Clinton administration, and now it’s not.”

These days, people want to read politically-charged work, often as a way to make sense of this world that we’re living in. In some cases, this means that nonfiction is on an upswing, unearthing more material from radical figures such as James Baldwin and promoting present-day treatises like Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Jessa Crispin’s Why I’m Not A Feminist. But fiction on the whole is suffering. According to Publishers Weekly, in 2016 there were no breakout bestsellers in adult fiction and sales were down by 1 percent. While this drop may seem trivial, for the first half of 2017 there was still no breakout hit for adult nonfiction or fiction.

Even with these falling sales numbers, fictional political works have been given much more media attention in the Trump era, perhaps because of their newfound urgency. Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko, a sprawling, multi-generational saga of a Korean immigrant family that struggles to assimilate in imperial Japan, said, “My novels critique money, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and history; consequently, my politics are very evident in my books. I think readers will not read my books unless they are interested in those topics.” Evidently, many of them are. The novel was released not long after Trump’s initial executive order declaring a Muslim ban, and received rave reviews from NPR, USA Today, and The New York Times Book Review. Anne Branigin of Fusion included Pachinko as one of the books of writers shedding light on Trump’s ban.

As far as older books go, the reports are telling. Leigh Altshuler, the Strand’s Director of Marketing and Communications, found that consistent bestsellers of 2017 were The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984—decades-old dystopian works that are receiving new attention. Altshuler adds, “I can say on a high level that interest (and sales) in non fiction and polysci has gone up.” Stephanie Valdez, co-owner of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, reported that in November 2016, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a passionate essay collection on the experience of racism, and George Packer’s The Unwinding, on the failures of American democratic institutions, also sold exceptionally well.

Yet in the midst of this, there seems to be a renaissance emerging for marginalized artists: The same identities that are being persecuted and demonized by the Trump administration are finding a warm welcome from an increasingly diverse literary audience that is eager to hear vulnerable voices, and to read about experiences that mirror their own. The book publicist Kima Jones argued, “Black and brown artists are hypervisible right now. If you look at the current state of the world, of the US—the bigotry, the violence, the attacks on our multiple identities—there should be no question why black writers and writers of color are producing the most important work of our time.” There is something liberating about the wealth of talent being published under Trump at this present moment. Jones’s client, Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, along with Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby, are all black women, and all New York Times bestsellers.

It remains to be seen of what will happen in the political arena going forward, but who and what gets shared in our crowded cultural conversation is important. For authors whose books were released in the thick of the political storm, to booksellers watching readers flock to dystopian works, the Trump administration has succeeded in influencing our consideration of books—not necessarily for better or for worse, but in ways that demonstrate how much we need words to survive and provide solace for troubling times ahead.