How three red-hot best-sellers finally cooled publishing's political heat wave
For the first five months of 2018, the only nonfiction books to top the New York Times hardcover best-seller list were political in theme, and Trump-obsessed in focus. With the dishy Fire and Fury and James Comey’s headline-grabbing A Higher Loyalty leading the charge, the market was being dominated — overpowered, even — by any significant book that purported to offer insight into our dysfunctional political culture.
This was, several sources have told EW over recent months, to the slight detriment of other buzzy new titles, echoing CNN’s reporting from April that some publishers were worried about Trump “hurting sales of non-political titles.” No big launch was quite big enough to overtake all those juicy tell-alls and incendiary polemics.
Then summer came around.
Since the beginning of June, the list’s trend has essentially reversed, with the No. 1 Times spot occupied by non-political books for all but two weeks. The most recent list, dated for July 29, features just one political book in the top seven. That’s a fairly dramatic shakeup from where we were three months ago. So what happened? How did publishing’s unrelenting political heat wave finally cool off?
The best book to look to, certainly, is Calypso by David Sedaris — since hitting the shelves at the end of May, it’s topped the Times hardcover nonfiction list in six of the seven weeks it’s been eligible. “This feels like a book that his fans were really waiting for,” Craig Young, Deputy Publisher of Little, Brown, and Co., tells EW. “It’s his most personal book, and his most relatable because it’s about family, and watching them grow older. He’s had a lot of success in the past, and this ranks right up there with his most successful books.” (Per Little, Brown, attendance at Sedaris’ 30 or so Calypso tour events so far has averaged 300 people.)
There’s a melancholy streak running through Calypso, as there perhaps hasn’t been in Sedaris’ past books, but make no mistake: this is still the kind of brilliantly observational, wildly funny collection that the author’s fans have come to love. It operates on a plane of mundanity, mining the comedy out of those little human foibles, and in that it’s sharply opposed to the gossipy 2018 powerhouses which preceded it. Even as Sedaris can’t help but explore the Trump phenomenon, he does so in a much lower key, bringing it down to the level of day-to-day life.
It’s telling, perhaps, that Calypso — as sharp a contrast as you’ll find to the quote-unquote “timely” content — has been the summer’s big breakout on the nonfiction side. “People want a way to have an escape, now especially, and are looking for something that is not political right now, and can make you feel good,” Young explains. “That’s a real trend in what’s working right now.” But he doesn’t see the political intensity dropping, per se: “Up to now and especially last year, everything was politics; now people are saying, ‘I also need to carve out some time for myself.’”
Whereas Calypso emerged as a summer standout right out of the gate, the other top nonfiction tome of the season was released way back in the winter: Educated, Tara Westover’s affecting memoir which traces her development from growing up to survivalist parents in perilous conditions to getting her PhD at Cambridge University. It launched as a best-seller in February, but had the bones of a publishing sensation: the triumphant, atmospheric narrative of Wild, the hard-hitting strife of The Glass Castle. And it was overshadowed by early 2018’s successive line of far splashier memoirs coming out of Washington.
Now, however, the book rests right behind Calypso on the Times list, at No. 2, and continues to climb Amazon’s more populist tracker as well. Educated has had one of the year’s longest tails, and is positioned to be one of the year’s very biggest books. “No matter how much you believe in a book or how carefully you work to launch it, its reception finds a way to surprise you,” Hilary Redmon, Executive Editor of Random House, explains. “The book’s trajectory now seems to be driven more by readers’ enthusiasm than the publisher’s.”
Redmon, who edited Educated, can at least personally vouch for the need to get away from the nonstop D.C. deluge. “It’s exhausting to spend all day checking Twitter for the latest outrage and then to go home to read about recent outrages in more detail,” she admits. “Maybe readers are looking for something more constructive.” Impressively, Educated has sold more than 450,000 copies this year, EW has learned, with its popularity not showing any signs of slowing down. Redmon calls Westover’s story “an essential part of the human experience,” particularly as the author describes the struggle to separate from her family.
That these two books read so intimately speaks volumes. That they’ve managed to emerge as the summer’s hottest titles indicates a desire, on readers’ part, for connection, a sense of empathy, a reminder of shared humanity. It’s why the only political book making waves right now is historian Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America, which is all about context and our fundamental principles of government — and, in turn, decency. Anger, for some, has turned to longing; meaning provides one cure for despair. There’s been a subtle turn in the national mood, and it’s being reflected in our collective book-buying habits.
One other book that has soared over the past month: the paperback edition of Kitchen Confidential, by the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain. It shot to the top of Amazon and the Times’ paperback list after the tragic news of Bourdain’s suicide broke, despite its release more than a decade ago. The book, which introduced the celebrity chef in all of his quick-witted, candid glory to many, uniquely captures his essence.
Bourdain’s death sparked a collective mourning, whether inside homes or on social media, offering a rare moment of unity. Bookstores sold out of Kitchen Confidential as demand skyrocketed; Ecco, Bourdain’s publisher, began ordering large reprints immediately. More than a month later, new readers are still discovering it, dedicatedly, in curiosity and affection. There’s a sad beauty in that.
In the publishing world, spring may have been the season of Trump. But this summer, it’s been about remembering who we really are.