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John Bolton Is Trying to Make a Buck. So Is Everyone Else in Washington.

An explosion of political book deals is warping incentives for both government officials and journalists.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

There is good reason to think that John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, is in it for the money. Bolton has spent the last several months playing footsie with Congress, teasing that he has secrets to spill about Trump’s involvement in the Ukraine scandal but refusing to participate in the impeachment inquiry or trial without a court order. At the same time, he received a $2 million advance for a tell-all memoir about his time in the White House. Bolton wasn’t giving up his secrets for free, despite their relevance to Trump’s impeachment. He was waiting until the book’s publication date in March, when readers would have to pony up $27.95 for them.

On Sunday, the impeachment trial and Bolton’s pre-publicity tour collided. The New York Times published a bombshell story revealing that, in a draft of his book, Bolton implicated Trump in a scheme to withhold military aid from the Ukrainian government unless it investigated Joe Biden and his son. Shortly afterward, the title of Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened, was revealed—and there could be no question what the “It” was. The book shot up the Amazon sales rankings, quickly entering the top 100, where it has remained ever since. In response to accusations from Republicans that the Times story was a publicity stunt, Bolton, his agent, and his publisher issued a mealy-mouthed statement denying that they had been behind the leak. Whatever the case, they certainly got some free publicity.

Bolton’s decision to monetize his experience in the White House is the highest-profile example of a growing trend. Former (and current!) administration officials and journalists alike are sitting on relevant information, trading it for lucrative book deals, and then teasing their scoops out, months later, to juice sales. The result is an environment in which news is breaking weeks and months later than it should. Worse still, there’s an enormous monetary incentive for the news itself to be as sensationalized and substance-free as possible.

Book publishers are churning out anything Trump-related that they can get their hands on. From a business perspective, this has been a genius strategy: Sales of political books grew by double digits during Trump’s first two years in office. With overall sales largely flat (and adult fiction sales cratering) in the pre-Trump years, this was a welcome injection of cash.

Publishers have settled on a simple formula: Drive sales by making the news. Embarrassing revelations from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury published in The Guardian and New York magazine resulted in angry tweets from Trump’s account—and spurred millions of copies in book sales. (Fire and Fury also benefited from the White House sending a cease-and-desist letter to the book’s publisher, Henry Holt. The administration evidently hasn’t learned its lesson: On Wednesday an official from the National Security Council contacted Simon & Schuster to try to block Bolton’s book on the grounds that it “appears to contain significant amounts of classified information.”) Though Fire and Fury remains an outlier (it is, by far, the most successful book to have been published about the Trump administration), every book about Trump has followed the same template. Excerpt the book’s most salacious material, hope it lands on Fox News, MSNBC, and/or the president’s Twitter feed, and profit.

This is not a wholly new phenomenon, of course. Political tell-alls and access-heavy journalism have been publishing staples for decades. But never at this scale. And never with such a focus on scoops, with publishers increasingly competing with media outlets in the breaking news business. The result, more often than not, is books that resemble the political tip sheets produced by Politico and Axios—gossipy, thin, and more reliant on microscoops than genuine insight. Fire and Fury remains the best example: It is, in essence, a 300-page version of one of these newsletters, only with Wolff’s clunky dialogue. Yet the revenue earned by that book alone likely exceeded the budgets of many news-gathering institutions in 2017.

This heated environment leads to unnatural compromises, particularly for journalists. Last fall, The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear reported that Trump, back in March of that year, had suggested shooting migrants in the legs and building an alligator- and snake-filled moat at the southern border. The reason for the delay? The story was included in Border Wars, Davis and Shear’s incisive book about the Trump administration’s immigration policy, which only came out in the fall. In Bolton’s case, the potential revelations are much more serious, because they directly factor into an ongoing impeachment trial.

But that only makes the marketing opportunity greater and plays into the emerging publishing script: Don’t give away what you have too early, for free. Despite the backlash to Bolton, there is every indication that ploy will work.