Trump leaving office could change America’s reading habits

Fiction or non?
Fiction or non?
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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After living through the recent turbulent years in the US, you might think Americans would be yearning for escape into fictional worlds, nestled between the pages of novels selling like toilet paper in a pandemic.

Yet it appears they can’t get enough politics.

The last four years of the Trump administration have flooded the US publishing industry with people eager to buy more nonfiction political books than ever before. Print sales hit a record in 2018 that was topped again this year, the highest since the market research company NPD BookScan began tracking such sales in 2004. Over the last four years, it reports, political science books have seen an average four-year growth rate of 12%.

It’s not all Trump. Liberal-penned tomes are having a moment in the sun. Michelle Obama’s Becoming has sold more than 10 million copies while shooting to the top of The New York Times‘ bestseller list. Her husband’s book, A Promised Land, is due out this November and is expected to sell well if fewer books (more than 500 books about Barack Obama were published during the former president’s first term).

But the Trump administration is the subject of a particular political genre more numerous than in any modern presidency: the blockbuster exposé written by a disaffected confidant, former staffer, family member, or muckraking journalist. At least 1,200 titles about the president have been published in the US, according to NPD BookScan, and the nonfiction releases only intensified in the weeks prior to the national election.

A (short) list includes books by James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Anthony Scaramucci, Omarosa Manigault Newman, Jim Acosta, “Anonymous” (Miles Taylor), John Bolton, Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and Mary L. Trump. This last book by Trump’s niece, a psychologist, sold 950,000 on the first day, a record for its publisher Simon & Schuster.

Perhaps not coincidentally, fiction hit the skids around the same time. Back in 2015, book sales looked very different: A blockbuster fiction novel might sell a million copies per year. Since then, just before Trump’s arrival in the White House, no works of fiction have cracked that number. The four-year growth rate for adult fiction averaged -1%, reports NPD BookScan.

One genre appears to be cannibalizing the other. “When we see rises in nonfiction, we generally see that come from somewhere else,” Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD books, told The New Republic. “As a general trendline, it has come, in my opinion, from fiction.”

But all is not lost for those hoping political books can transcend tawdry tell-alls by former White House occupants. Sales of classics are up, reports the Guardian, from George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism (more than 20,000 copies) to Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (16,000 copies).

With the election (almost) behind us, perhaps we can crack open that novel Weather you might have heard about.