Sanford's Lost Opportunity

Sentinel's cancellation last week of Gov. Mark Sanford's political manifesto, which was due out next year, raises an elephant-in-the-room question: Why was the conservative Penguin imprint bothering to publish the work at all?

Books by politicians, particularly ideological treatises, rarely break out on the sales front. Yes, there is a certain White House resident whose memoir - Dreams From My Father - has had a pretty good run, selling about 1.7 million copies of its 2004 trade paper edition, according to Nielsen BookScan.

But politicians' literary endeavors can turn out to be embarrassing duds. Instead of adding gravitas to a political platform, or inspiring the masses on the campaign trail, or landing the author on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the volume can spiral straight to the bottom of Amazon's bottomless sales list.

For a governor like Sanford, lacking the national exposure of members of Congress, the hurdles can be even higher. Look no further than the book sales of two other governors - one former, the other current -- who also had happened to have experience as White House cabinet secretaries: Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and secretary of health and human services under George W. Bush; and Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former energy secretary under Bill Clinton.

Thompson's "Power to the People - An American State at Work," was no barnburner when released in 1996 and has sold so few copies since 2001 that Nielsen just lists its sales as less than 1,000. Richardson's "Between Worlds - The Making of an American Life" hasn't fared much better. Released in hardcover in 2005, the book has sold just 5,000 copies of its 2007 paperback edition.

That's not to say that a big footprint on the national scene automatically translates into big sales. John Kerry and John Edwards' campaign calling-card in 2004, titled "Our Plan for America - Stronger at Home, Respected in the World" has sold a mere 12,000 copies and now rests at about 2,860,000th on Amazon's sales rankings.

The Kerry-Edwards' book highlights the danger of the politician opus. This kind of work risks quickly becoming perishable - to the point of utter oblivion. If the book is fashioned for a single campaign season it's not very likely it will outlive it. Nor will it lavish upon the writer much in the way of enduring gravitas. It would, in fact, be laughable to suppose that any work of this nature would provide a meaningful contribution to the national discourse. "Profiles in Courage," an enduring title that introduced John F. Kennedy to the nation and may or may not have been written by him, stands as an exception, largely because of the legacy of the man himself. The book, released in 1956, continues to attract readers, selling 159,000 copies in paperback since 2001.

So why in the first place did Sentinel propose publishing Sanford's book about fiscal conservatism?

Sentinel was reluctant to discuss the book.

But Jonathan Karp, a longtime editor, sees merits in the pre-blow-up Sanford as a potential book author. Karp is publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, a Hachette Book Group imprint. He recently released "The Waxman Report: How Congress Works" by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which the Post said in a review on Sunday "is fun to read" and "explains, at least, how Congress can work."

To Karp, Sanford seemed both more colorful and fiscally disciplined than the typical conservative. The South Carolina governor turned a wary eye toward the federal government's stimulus funds for his state and was known to speak of his heart-surgeon father's austerity during the Depression. Sanford would pocket loose change he found lying around at campaign rallies and instructed staffers to be sparing of office supplies - they had to write on both sides of index cards.

"In the absence of a more compelling figure, one could envision a scenario in which his brand of frugal extremism could have caught on with a motivated segment of the reading public, just as Ron Paul's libertarian anti-imperialism did in 2008," Karp said in an email.

Then love intervened - and Sentinel pulled the plug.

Suddenly, Sanford's literary ambitions seemed misguided. "Clearly, he was writing the wrong book," Karp pointed out. "He's got a future in romance novels."

By Steven E. Levingston |  July 9, 2009; 2:41 PM ET
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