Over the last week, numerous people in the publishing industry have unironically compared Michael Wolff’s explosive Trump administration tell-all Fire and Fury to Harry Potter. It’s a genuine cultural phenomenon. Booksellers across the country told me they sold out in hours, if not minutes. Barnes & Noble’s website informs anxious customers that the mega-chain will have the book back in stock on January 19. The otherwise speedy Amazon is even less precise: It warns the prospective reader that the book “usually ships within two to four weeks.” More than 1,000 people are on the New York Public Library’s waiting list. This scarcity has driven samizdat electronic copies of Fire and Fury, which began circulating even before the book’s publisher, Henry Holt, moved the on-sale date up to January 5 from January 8. It may be the most pirated book since, you guessed it, Harry Potter.
Despite Wolff’s gossipy scoops and unprecedented access—he conducted more than 200 interviews and was allowed to roam free in the West Wing—Henry Holt was apparently caught unaware by the explosive response. Holt’s struggles to keep up with demand have deprived thousands of readers of a book they want right away and likely cost significant sales. But the real losers of this debacle may be independent booksellers, which once again are seeing Amazon reap the benefits of having a monopoly-like hold over the electronic books market.
For the last year, major publishers have increasingly bet on Trump-focused books like Fire and Fury to drive revenue, with readers being distracted by the daily avalanche of news coming from the White House. Publishers spent 2017 catching up to Trump, having largely written him off in 2016. (Because books take quite a long time to write and produce, topical books about topics publishers suspect will fade from view rarely garner interest.) With fiction sales flagging, a slew of nonfiction works were published, often hastily, including bestsellers like Luke Harding’s Collusion, Katy Tur’s Unbelievable, and Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain.
There is good reason to believe that Holt had no idea that Fire and Fury would become the most talked about nonfiction book in years. Independent bookstore owners and booksellers told me that the book was not given extra attention by the publisher’s sales representatives. Given the book’s announced initial print run of 250,000, it seems clear that Holt anticipated that Fire and Fury could be compared, in terms of sales, to Devil’s Bargain, which has sold a respectable 50,000 copies in print since it was published in July according to Nielsen BookScan. Holt apparently did not believe that challenging Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, which has sold 500,000 copies, was a possibility. (One important note about announced print runs: They’re typically inflated. An announced print run of 250,000 often means fewer than 250,00 copies were printed—and sometimes fewer than 100,000. The Wall Street Journal reported that “about 150,000” copies were printed, a number that still struck many I spoke to as being too high.)
No publisher can have a perfect grasp of what will happen to one of its books. After all, this year will see probably dozens of Trump books, many of them with boldface claims and insane revelations—two more, It’s Even Worse Than You Think by David Cay Johnston and Trumpocracy by David Frum, drop next week. Henry Holt could never have expected that the president of the United States would repeatedly tweet about the book, or that his attorneys would deliver a cease-and-desist letter demanding that it stop publication, two actions that guaranteed the book would sell tens of thousands of copies. Devil’s Bargain, like Fire and Fury, had Steve Bannon’s cooperation and drove a ton of news—it arguably led to Bannon’s ouster from the White House. But the president shrugged it off. Holt was “taken by surprise based on the free publicity of a cease and desist order,” one bookstore owner told me.
That is undoubtedly true, but it still overlooks a number of factors that drove interest in Fire and Fury. The president began tweeting about the book because of widely circulated excerpts published in The Guardian and New York. The very nature of the book also practically guaranteed that it would make a splash. Not only did Michael Wolff capture senior White House officials attacking the competency of the president and his children, he provided the first lengthy fly-on-the-wall view of life in the White House. That Wolff did so by being duplicitous—he got into the White House’s good graces by publishing columns attacking the press for its treatment of Trump—only made the book more newsworthy. Henry Holt not only had the first Game Change-style book about the Trump White House, but also an author who, unlike Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, was more than willing to burn his sources.
But Holt didn’t know what it had in its hands. If it did, it “clearly didn’t tell the [sales representatives] or whoever decides how many copies to print,” one amused bookstore owner told me. “Everyone at the store found out the same way everyone else did—from the news,” one bookseller said.
Holt has managed to rush reprints, and some copies have gone out to stores. The booksellers I spoke to were somewhat mollified by Holt’s decision to set aside a substantial number of copies for independent stores in its initial reprint. But the consequences for Holt’s dithering will nevertheless be real. By dramatically failing to meet demand, Holt will lose hundreds, if not thousands, of sales due to piracy. Hot-button books like Fire and Fury are a lifeline for retailers big and small (Barnes & Noble, in particular, just reported a steep decline in holiday revenue), and by under-printing Fire and Fury, Holt has essentially ceded sales to Amazon. Because the electronic edition cannot go out of stock by definition, and because Amazon has an effective monopoly on the sale of electronic books, it was essentially the only retailer selling the book over the weekend.
For Henry Holt and its parent company Macmillan, these screw-ups are small beer. Four days after Fire and Fury was published, Macmillan announced that it was already the company’s fastest seller in history. Holt did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent reassured booksellers via The Wall Street Journal that it was rushing one million copies to print and “shipping books every day.” For a company that needs to move on from its mainstay political author, the disgraced former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, this is welcome news. But because the vast majority of sales were electronic, that means that the vast majority of those sales were made by Amazon, whose power publishers have tried to circumvent for more than a decade.
Because Holt’s response was so flat-footed, critics of the industry will have further ammunition for their gripes: book publishing moves too slowly, it has failed to adapt to the modern news ecosystem, it should more readily embrace e-books, and so on. But Holt had ample opportunity to anticipate the scale of the response. Books have been published with rapid schedules before, well before the advent of social media. The publication of the biggest book of the year was hindered not by technology or contemporary forces, but by a plain lack of editorial foresight.