Seven years ago, on the eve of being elected to a second term as governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo completed a rite of passage familiar to all presidential aspirants: He published a memoir, All Things Possible. It is overlong at more than 550 pages, cliché-ridden, and hopelessly dull, which is to say a standard-issue political tome. Cuomo was paid a more than $700,000 advance by HarperCollins, and the book had an announced initial print run of 200,000. But five months after it was published, it had sold just over 3,000 copies in hardcover and 13 audiobooks. Even by the dismal standards of the subgenre of books by politicians, this was a flop—based on a conservative estimate of the governor’s advance, Cuomo earned about $200 for every hardcover sold.
For most authors, a sales track record like this would be the kiss of death. Disastrous debuts are rarely rewarded with lucrative follow-up book deals. But despite the abysmal failure of All Things Possible, Cuomo published a follow-up, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic last fall. According to The New York Times, the bidding process for that book “ended with a high offer of more than $4 million,” a figure in line with earlier reporting suggesting that Cuomo had been paid an advance in the low-to-mid seven figures.
Though more successful than its predecessor—it has sold about 45,000 copies—it, too, is a disaster from a sales standpoint, and that was before Cuomo was hit with a cascade of scandals; its publisher, Crown, stopped promoting it earlier this year. American Crisis even plays a supporting role in one of those scandals—while Cuomo and his aides were at work on the book, they were simultaneously working to undercount nursing home deaths early in the pandemic, according to the Times. The book was clearly intended to bolster Cuomo’s reputation as “America’s governor,” a competent executive who had steered his state through a crisis and who, potentially, could be a Democratic presidential frontrunner in 2024 or 2028.
But the connection between books and successful runs for office is tenuous at best, a lesson that neither politicians nor publishers have learned. For every Profiles in Courage or Dreams From My Father, there are dozens of flops like American Crisis, Jeb Bush’s Immigration Wars, or Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine’s Stronger Together. There is little evidence suggesting a large public appetite for thinly disguised campaign literature. In the case of Cuomo and his publisher, Crown, the result was a disaster; American Crisis is yet another monument to Cuomo’s megalomania, and one that might ultimately play a pivotal role in his downfall.
According to Vanity Fair, the idea for American Crisis was cooked up by Cuomo’s literary representative and two top editors at Crown late last spring. It is easy to see the calculus here. A year ago, Cuomo’s daily Covid-19 briefings were airing on cable news as counterprogramming to Donald Trump’s fantasia of excuses and lies. Though behind closed doors Cuomo was a controlling and unpleasant power broker with little charisma, those briefings had given him a bona fide liberal fandom who thought of him as a figure of comfort and even a sex symbol.
From a business perspective, Cuomo sold his book at what was arguably his political highpoint. And yet, there was always something crass about Cuomo’s decision to take a victory lap in the middle of the pandemic. Perhaps because of that, American Crisis landed with a thud in the middle of Covid-19’s third wave. It was hardly apparent what “leadership” lessons Cuomo even had to offer, despite his popularity. Although the nursing home scandal didn’t boil over until early 2021, it was percolating as early as the spring of 2020. New York, moreover, was still very much in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Cuomo was cashing in on his early fame, but his record was questionable and unfinished when the book appeared.
Even when you take Cuomo’s popularity in mid-2020 into account, $4 million is astonishingly high. Industry figures have estimated that figure assumed sales in the very high six figures, and possibly over one million—an astonishing number, particularly given the disruptions caused by Covid-19. It points to the kind of mania that grips some publishing houses and the bubbles that many executives live in—Cuomo’s popularity among a certain set was so profound that the idea that American Crisis could be the kind of book that makes a publishing house’s year took hold.
It’s easy to see why publishers love books by politicians. They’re famous and easy to book on television, the gold standard for publicity. (Ironically, one reason why All Things Possible failed was that Cuomo declined to promote it, possibly fearing tough questions as he was running for reelection.) A certain number of sales are often guaranteed; politicians buy lots of their own books directly from publishers and then sell them to supporters to fund campaigns. Additionally, publishing a book by a presidential aspirant increases the likelihood of publishing another book when their profile is even higher.
But while this calculus makes intuitive sense, these books rarely move the needle. Nearly every Democrat running for president in 2020 published a book, and nearly all of them are already forgotten—no one is clamoring for Amy Klobuchar’s The Senator Next Door, Cory Booker’s United, or John Hickenlooper’s The Opposite of Woe (though that one, at least, has an intriguing subtitle: “My Life in Beer and Politics”). Given the serious inequities in publishing—low advances paid to many authors, low salaries for many workers, a lack of diversity at every level—the high advances paid to bland books that rarely sell is particularly galling.
These books are also rarely revealing—they’re contrived bits of marketing designed to reveal as little as possible. Their existence is supposed to be proof of a candidate’s vision and prominence, making their contents of secondary importance. So it is with American Crisis. It doesn’t really matter what Cuomo (or his team) wrote; the fact that he had aides working on it in the midst of a pandemic that was killing his constituents while at the same time covering up the death toll is more damning than anything he or anyone else could have written. Cuomo published a book meant to be a monument to his own political abilities. It’s now looking more like a tombstone on his national political career.