There have been smoother book announcements than the one for Donald Trump Jr.’s second book, Liberal Privilege. After Axios’s Mike Allen reported that the book, focused on tarring Joe Biden, will be released during the Republican convention, the book quickly went viral—because of a glaring typo on the cover, which read Joe Biden and the Democrat’s Defense of the Indefensible.
That error swallowed the other bit of news in Allen’s report, though it was, perhaps, a reflection of it: Trump Jr., whose first book was published by Hachette’s Center Street imprint, would be self-publishing the follow-up. The president’s eldest son described the move as a “shot across the bow” of traditional publishers—a sign that conservative stars like him no longer needed the industry’s gatekeepers in New York. Publishers have long relied on conservative imprints to churn out money-making bestsellers, but in the Trump era, fissures have emerged between those imprints, right-wing stars, and conglomerate publishers. Now Trump Jr. is bringing the culture wars to the book business, and it may ultimately have profound implications for the industry.
Before Trump’s rise, conservative imprints were already facing something of an existential crisis. As McKay Coppins detailed for BuzzFeed back in 2014, the market was oversaturated; imprints routinely paid hundreds of thousands for limp memoirs from replacement-level Republicans. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty got $340,000 for Courage to Stand, a memoir that anticipated his presidential campaign, which was comically short-lived. Courage to Stand sold 11,000 copies, 5,000 of which were bought by Pawlenty’s political action committee.
Trump’s rise has changed this dynamic. Any positive book about the president is bound to get attention—and a tweet or two from the president. As a result, a number of books from loyalists like Corey Lewandowski have been rushed to print and sold well. But this has also created problems. While conservative imprints have always published books by firebrands, the Trump era has drawn more attention to right-leaning publishers. Retailers have been called out for selling books like Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie, which claimed to expose the “Nazi roots of the American left.”
At the same time, many publishers sought out pro-Trump figures to write books for a conservative audience, including sometimes authors with alt-right ties. That’s how Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions made the disastrous decision to give, and then rescind, amid protests, a book deal to troll Milo Yiannopoulos. (That book, Dangerous, was canceled after pro-pedophilia comments from Yiannopoulos surfaced.)
Those decisions have come under intense scrutiny from employees and authors and faced public pressure campaigns and boycotts. It seems, as I wrote last month, only a matter of time before the decision to publish a book from a prominent right-wing author will lead to a staff revolt, as happened when Hachette announced that it would be publishing a book by Woody Allen (and then reversed course).
As the president’s son and top surrogate, Trump Jr. is a huge draw, someone practically guaranteed to sell loads of books. His first title, Triggered, sold nearly 300,000 copies according to Nielsen Bookscan, though some publishing insiders I spoke to suggested that the total number of sales could be closer to 400,000. The book was mocked at the time of its release for containing numerous factual errors and because it was bought in bulk by the Republican National Committee—leading The New York Times to put an asterisk next to it on its bestseller list—but it would have easily made the list without help from the RNC.
Although many have speculated that Liberal Privilege was being self-published because it had been rejected by publishers, the book does not appear to have gone out on submission; given Trump Jr.’s sales record, it would be shocking if Center Street or another conservative publisher didn’t pick it up. Instead, given Trump Jr.’s celebrity, the decision to self-publish is a rational one. “As an entrepreneur, Donald Trump Jr. was comfortable taking on this project without a traditional publisher,” Sergio Gor, who worked on Triggered and Liberal Privilege, told me over email. “His first book, Triggered, performed incredibly well. He had a very generous offer from Center Street and left on very amicable terms. You’ll likely see more authors publish outside of traditional ways, directly to the consumer, in the future.” (Representatives from Hachette and Center Street did not return requests for comment.)
Political books like Triggered and Liberal Privilege are rarely edited in any conventional sense, nor are they fact-checked. (Publishers don’t fact-check any of their books, citing prohibitive costs; when it is done, fact-checking is paid for by the author.) A publisher’s value in this instance comes from the fact that it assumes risk: It pays for the books to be published, distributed, and promoted. But Trump Jr. clearly sees little risk in taking on these costs himself. Thanks to his sizable social media following and celebrity, he doesn’t need help promoting the book or getting on right-leaning television and radio. It’s not yet clear if the book will be available in stores, but that may not matter, as the majority of conservative book sales happen online, particularly on Amazon. (The pandemic means that there will be even fewer in-store sales than usual.) Although the upfront costs of printing and distribution will have to be paid by Trump Jr.—and there will be no advance—he will get a significantly larger cut of the sales.
Trump Jr.’s declaration of independence from the New York publishing world might be a marketing gimmick more than anything else—a way for Trump Jr. to snub the cultural elite while leaving the door open to return to Center Street at his convenience. But conservatives have a long history of self-publishing. In 1964, three self-published books—None Dare Call it Treason, A Choice Not an Echo, and A Texan Looks at Lyndon—played an important role in that year’s presidential election and the growing conservative movement. Many on the right have used a direct-to-consumer approach—including book clubs—to market and sell their ideas for decades. During its pricing war with Hachette in 2014, Amazon repeatedly defended itself in culture-war terms, casting self-publishing as a way for the little guy to stick up to the liberal elite and employing a number of right-leaning or libertarian authors in its defense. At the same time, increasing friction between right-leaning imprints and the other employees of generally progressive conglomerates is growing.
It’s unlikely that there will ever be a time when a major publisher doesn’t have a conservative imprint or two (the money is just too good), but one could easily see Liberal Privilege as a kind of breaking point for right-wing celebrities: Why deal with the hassle when you can do it all yourself, make more money, and thumb your nose at the coastal liberals, all at once? And if you can do that, who cares about a typo or two on the cover?