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The Increasingly Isolated World of Conservative Media

Regnery's decision to shun The New York Times bestsellers list shows just how little conservative publishers need their mainstream counterparts.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, the independent conservative publisher Regnery, which has published Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Donald Trump, and other luminaries, announced it had “severed ties” with The New York Times bestsellers list. Regnery was incensed that D’Souza’s most recent book, The Big Lie, which claims to uncover the “Nazi roots” of the Democratic Party, was given short shrift by the paper of record, appearing in the number eight slot despite appearing to have outsold every other title on the list.

In a statement, Regnery publisher Marji Ross claimed that the Times’s liberal bias had infected its bestsellers coverage: “Increasingly, it appears that the Times has gathered book sale data in a manner which prioritizes liberal-themed books over conservative books and authors. The net result has been a bestsellers list that has increasingly become less relevant to the Regnery audience, and less reflective of which books are actually selling best in the country, regardless of one’s political persuasion.” Regnery’s decision was widely praised by conservative media. The Washington Times, for instance, called it the “shot heard ‘round the publishing world.”

It’s unlikely that other publishers greeted the decision with anything other than an eye-roll. And while Regnery has earned some cred with its own crowd, the editors of the Times bestsellers list have little reason to lose sleep. Regnery’s books will still appear on the bestsellers list; the company simply won’t print “New York Times Bestseller” on its books or marketing materials, a low-stakes protest that led The Washington Post to label the whole affair a “publicity stunt.”

But that doesn’t mean the controversy is without serious implications. Over the last three decades, conservatives have built a self-contained, self-referential media ecosystem. It has steadily broken away from the mainstream media, doing its own reporting, making its own analysis, and fueling its own outrage. There is now so little overlap between these two worlds that one of their least controversial links—the bestsellers list—has come under fire. Its very triviality shows the extreme lengths that conservatives will go to consciously uncouple from the rest of the world, even if it means sacrificing profits and prestige.

There’s no doubt, of course, that Regnery is grandstanding. “I object to them calling what we did ‘just a publicity stunt,’” Ross said in an interview with the New Republic. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting publicity out of it!” Nor is this the first time that the Times bestsellers list has been attacked by conservatives for its alleged bias. Two years ago, while he was running for president, Ted Cruz whined that his book hadn’t made the bestsellers list (until it did). But complaining about the Times’s shadowy methodology—its formula for selecting bestsellers is a closely guarded secret—is commonplace throughout the publishing industry. Liberal publishers get mad at the list, too, because every publisher, at one time or another, gets mad at the list.

Regnery’s experience with the list is a familiar one. The Big Lie, Ross told the New Republic, sold 11,380 copies its first week. That was more than any other hardcover title, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks book sales. And yet, when the bestsellers list came out, it was number eight. (Nielsen now claims to capture 85 percent of the market—the real percentage is almost certainly lower, but it’s the most authoritative source for sales and is widely used by both publishers and journalists.)

The following week, it sold 12,054 copies, according to Ross. Once again this was more than any other hardcover title. When the list came out, it only moved up one more slot. And what happened to The Big Lie was not an isolated incident, Ross told me. Another Regnery title, No Go Zones, which attempts to add journalistic heft to the myth that sharia law is taking hold in the West, didn’t appear on the list at all, despite selling 3,994 copies.

“It was sort of a tipping point for us,” Ross said. “We’ve experienced this many times before. What happened last month was just the most recent example.”

Ross argued that conservatives have every reason to gripe. The Times makes its list by compiling data from hundreds, if not thousands, of stores. “What seems to be happening is that the places that they’re getting their data are a lot of independent bookstores, which lean left,” Ross said. “It is incredibly widely known that independent bookstores by and large have a liberal bent—not all of them, certainly, but a majority of them. It looks like what’s happening is that The New York Times is gathering data from outlets that are not representative of nationwide sales. It’s not that they’re cooking the books, but if you only collect your data from left-leaning stores, it’s not surprising that the results will be a list that favors left-leaning books.”

If you set aside the culture war language here, Ross may have a point. If the Times is oversampling independent bookstores, books by conservatives would likely be underrepresented. Ross told me that most of Regnery’s books are sold at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and Costco. And yet, if the Times really were dramatically oversampling independent bookstores, most of which sell very few books by conservative authors, then it’s unlikely that authors like Bill O’Reilly, whose books dominate the list, would appear on it at all.

And whatever Regnery’s experience, conservative books have regularly dominated the Times nonfiction list for decades, in large part because the same network of conservative media outlets is very good at selling books. Conservative authors often have platforms on radio and/or television, and they use those platforms to push their book and appear on other radio and television programs to generate publicity. Later, they will return the favor; for example, Mark Levin will appear on Sean Hannity’s show to promote his book, then Hannity will appear on Levin’s show to promote his book.

Asked if they do a lot of bulk sales—conservative authors like Cruz have been accused of orchestrating bulk buys to pad sales and top the Times list—Ross laughed. “For us, the most effective way to sell books is to make sure that the author does a massive amount of TV interviews, radio interviews, and print interviews because it’s better leverage. You can reach more people on a radio interview than you can in person.”

Which is to say that Regnery’s business model isn’t dependent on playing nice with The New York Times. The bestsellers list is likely the only interaction most Regnery books will have with the paper. Meanwhile, conservative authors will talk to conservative readers via conservative media outlets about the Nazi foundation of the Democratic Party and the sinister creep of sharia law—and maybe about the Times’s insidious liberal bias.

Still, the Times list provides an unparalleled level of prestige. The Publishers Weekly list, which tracks closer to Bookscan and which Regnery says it will use from now on, doesn’t come close. Conservatives still want the prestige that the liberal media can bestow, no matter how much they claim to scorn it, which is why complaining about the bestsellers list is so common. And with the exception of the Times’s opinion page, the list represents the last link between the paper and conservative media.

Even that tenuous connection has become too much. In a letter to authors, Ross wrote, “I ask you to consider this: We are often told it’s foolish to bite the hand that feeds you. ... I say it’s just as foolish to feed the hand that bites you.” But Regnery is just coming around to what many conservatives realized long ago: They don’t need the Times anymore, and they’re better off treating those institutions as a foil or even an enemy.

Regnery is something of an outlier in the conservative publishing world. Most of the other major conservative publishers are housed within large conglomerates. The decision to “sever ties” is a clever way of cementing its reputation for independence—other conservative publishers talk the talk, while Regnery is walking the walk. But the split with the Times also seemed inevitable. It is all the more fitting that the relationship ended with a whimper, not a bang.