Earlier this month, Glenn Beck did what precious few authors have tried and failed to do over the past four weeks: unseat Stieg Larsson from the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Beck's thriller The Overton Window topped the charts with more than 132,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which tracks approximately 75% of total book sales). This isn't exactly new territory for Beck, who has seen his name at the top of the charts in fiction, non-fiction, and even children's picture books. Since 2003, Fox News's conservative host has sold almost 5 million copies of his books in the United States alone.
Not only do Beck's books sell at record levels, but so do his book picks. Every month or so, Beck holds up his latest choice from one of his favorite genres: thrillers, non-fiction (mainly about the founding fathers), and polemics. Like Oprah, Beck has turned into a literary tastemaker and for the authors he's interviewed on his programs and their publishers, the results are staggering. George Washington's Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback's 1,200-page biography first published by the tiny Providence Forum Press in 2006, has sold more than 45,000 copies this year, according to Bookscan. The vast majority of those sales coming after Lilliback appeared on Beck's television show in mid-May.
The Business of Beck
Beck can thank his captive audience for his prominence in the publishing world. His evening show on Fox News attracts roughly 2 million viewers and more than 9 million listeners tune into his morning radio show. His fan base has been quick to act on his enthusiastic endorsements. "We sell books hand over fist. I challenge you to find a group of people that read as many and as eclectic books as our audience does," Beck said in a recent interview with USA Today to promote The Overton Window.
Beck can spin sales gold out of some surprising choices. The University of Chicago Press has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of his endorsements. Among its list of steadiest-selling books has been F.A. Hayek's anti-big government treatise The Road to Serfdom (1944), which links socialism to totalitarianism.
Press director Garrett Kiely told Publishers Weekly the book had increased its annual sales from about 7,000 copies to about 27,000 copies since President Obama's election in November 2008. When Glenn Beck endorsed the book on his TV show on June 8 of this year, that number nearly tripled to 70,000 - just in one week. (Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks approximately 75% of total book sales, reports The Road to Serfdom has sold 57,000 copies since the beginning of 2010.)
"Frankly, we've had books on The Daily Show, The Today Show -- even Oprah. But I've never seen anything like this," said promotions director Mark Heineke in an e-mail. They've managed to keep up with "voracious demand." The success of Hayek's book has also bumped up sales for the author's two other books, The Fatal Conceit and The Constitution of Liberty, which also delve into "the perils of socialism." As Heineke says, it's "a very pleasant windfall."
Not Just Partisan Picks
Beck's love affair with thrillers has spurred him to interview more than 40 authors, including Nelson DeMille, James Rollins, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor, the latter two with whom he shares an editor and all of whom blurbed The Overton Window. Many of the thriller writers Beck favors, as described in a New York Times feature last fall, write of big conspiracies and sky-high stakes where the fate of the country is in the hands of larger-than-life protagonists. (The vast majority of them are men, by the way.) But Beck hasn't restricted his interviews to writers who share his political views.
"My politics are not Beck's politics. Far from it," said Gayle Lynds, who appeared on Beck's radio program to promote her then-recent novel The Last Spymaster in 2007. "As it turned out, we didn't discuss politics. We did discuss the CIA at some length, but somehow never managed to disagree seriously. Throughout the show, he showed a love of books and reading that was genuine and refreshing."
Punditry and Publishing
Through his production company, Mercury Radio Arts, Beck has been dabbling in the publishing industry for some time now. In 2005 he hired Kevin Balfe - the older brother of company COO Chris Balfe - from Independent Investor, Inc., a financial services publisher, to start up and oversee production of Fusion, a bimonthly magazine. Book publishing was added to the mix in 2007 with An Inconvenient Book, authored and conceived by Beck but edited - with substantial contributions to the text - by Balfe. (Through a spokesperson, both Balfe and Beck declined to comment for the piece.)
All of Beck's books to date, which include the fictional fable The Christmas Sweater , published in 2008, and 2009's Arguing With Idiots, have been published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster (CBS). Last year, the publishing house and Mercury Radio Arts struck a deal where Beck would accept smaller advances for his books, but receive a higher royalty rate and share more fully in the profits. The partnership arrangement gives Beck more freedom to act as his own book packager. "I'd rather take a lower advance and have a partnership," Beck told the Wall Street Journal last year. "I'll bet on myself and a smart person on the other side of the table every time."
Filling a Space Left Open by Liberal Media
Some argue that Beck's effectiveness in driving book sales isn't so much a sign of his power, as it is a sign of a lack of competition. "[Beck's] relative effectiveness derives from the fact that the left isn't even trying. It's hard to win if you won't at least step onto the playing field," said Barry Eisler, whose newest thriller Inside Out was published on June 29. "So for now, when it comes to selling fiction, there's simply no mass market progressive alternative to Beck -- not Colbert, not Maddow, not Maher, not Olbermann, not Stewart."
With his new book, Eisler is actively reaching out to progressive media outlets and targeting liberal blogs who might otherwise ignore thrillers. (Full disclosure: I reviewed Inside Out favorably for Salon earlier in June.) But he admits if he got the call from Beck to appear on one of his programs, he would say yes.
"In fact, right now I have a better chance of being invited onto Beck than I do of being invited onto any of the shows I mention above -- which itself ought to be a wake-up call to progressives about what's missing from their messaging." It's also a further wake-up call that Beck, for now, is unchallenged in his ability to endorse books - his own and others - all the way to the top of the bestseller charts.
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