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The Battle for Hearts, Minds and Book Sales

As it is on the campaign trail, so it is in literature. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, almost tied in polls, are also vying for the top spot in book sales.

Clinton_cover_4 As of last fall, Living History, Hillary Clinton’s 2003 memoir, had vastly outsold every other presidential candidate’s book by a wide margin—moving over 1.1 million hardcover copies and nearly 200,000 copies in paperback between its release and the beginning of December, according to Nielsen BookScan. It seemed inevitable that her 600-page tome would rule the political bestseller category through the next election.

Obama_cover_4 Then Barack Obama came along and captured the imaginations of Democrats, who this winter lofted him above Clinton in both poll standings and book sales. While it is still far behind Living History in sales over its lifetime, Obama’s reissued 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, has outsold Living History since the beginning of December, by 77,000 copies to 8,000. Obama’s policy book, The Audacity of Hope, has sold 152,000 copies during the same period, making it the best-selling candidate book of the winter.

The carefully-timed political memoir has been a staple of this election cycle, particularly on the Democratic side, where evoking John F. Kennedy is a sort of religion (Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and pushed the then-senator to national prominence).

Clinton’s memoir may have an edge in overall sales, but the books’ reviewers suggest that Obama has the advantage in Kennedyesque writing abilities. “Living History is neither living nor history,” wrote Maureen Dowd in her review of the book for the New York Times. In another Times review, Michiko Kautani says this about Clinton’s memoir:

Living History is a mishmash of pious platitudes about policy;…robotic asides about her official duties in Washington;…and by now familiar accounts of Hillary Rodham Clinton's metamorphosis over the years from Goldwater girl to liberal student activist to high-powered lawyer to first lady to senator from New York.

Obama’s writing has enjoyed better reviews (though the critics’ praise is still not unqualified). The same reviewer called Obama’s Dreams from My Father “a revealing, introspective account,” but wrote that in his later book, The Audacity of Hope, he still “occasionally slips into the flabby platitudes favored by politicians.”

Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carlin Romano calls Obama's language "idealistic, yet street-smart; inspirational, but with a sense of humor; tough-minded, though not sarcastic or resentful."

Mccain_cover_3 The numbers on the Republican side are a bit less impressive, echoing, perhaps, party members’ antipathy toward their field of candidates. John McCain’s memoir, Faith of My Fathers, has sold about 96,000 copies since it was released in August 1999, a month before he formally launched his first presidential campaign.

Ron Paul’s 2007 tract, A Foreign Policy of Freedom, has sold a brisk 37,000 copies since its publication, according to BookScan.

Huckabee_cover_2 Former candidate Mike Huckabee has perhaps the most diverse oeuvre of the contenders. He has written both a memoir, Character Makes a Difference, and a weight-loss guide, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork. The weight-loss title, whose cover features before and after pictures of Huckabee, has outsold his memoir 30,000 copies to 5,000.

--Jon Bruner

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