As I write, the lead news story at Yahoo concerns one of the most keenly anticipated new books of the fall – George W. Bush’s Decision Points, scheduled for November publication by Crown. This AP article, by Douglass K. Daniel, discusses the expectations in the industry, and, by way of comparison, examines how previous books by Presidents have done at the stores.
Daniel informs his readers that of all the books written by Presidents since the New York Times instituted its bestseller list in 1942 (close to half of them written by Jimmy Carter alone), those that have reached the coveted No. 1 nonfiction position have been the work of just six presidents out of the thirteen that have served in the last seven decades. These he identifies as Dwight D. Eisenhower (his account of World War II, Crusade In Europe, published in 1952 before his election); President Obama (whose The Audacity Of Hope topped the nonfiction list while he ran for the White House); John F. Kennedy (whose Profiles In Courage topped the list in the months following his assassination); Ronald Reagan (whose The Reagan Diaries, edited by historian Douglas Brinkley, reached the No. 1 spot a few years after his passing); Bill Clinton’s memoirs My Life; and, with two books, Jimmy Carter.
Not that the other chief executives didn’t try. Richard M. Nixon wrote 12 books, nearly all of them after he resigned as president. Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush also turned author but never enjoyed the satisfaction that comes with a top seller.
Could this really be true, that RN failed to reach the top of the nonfiction list in twelve attempts?
Tomorrow I’ll report on whether such is the case where the New York Times’s list is concerned. (It should be kept in mind that what little information has surfaced about the way the list is compiled suggests it tends to skew toward sales as reported in bookstores in affluent, liberal-leaning locales on the East Coast, and is not as representative as Publishers Weekly’s list, which has been around for much longer.)
But I can say that, back in the days when Time magazine still had a bestseller list, Richard Nixon topped it at least once – on July 14, 1980, when his warning against Soviet expansionism, The Real War, reached the No. 1 nonfiction spot.
Update: I have now examined the New York Times bestseller lists that included President Nixon’s works, and Douglass Daniel’s article is correct: although RN placed several books in the higher reaches of the list, none of them reached No. 1. The one that came closest was RN: The Memoirs Of Richard Nixon, which reached the No. 2 place on the nonfiction list in 1978 (above James Fixx’s The Complete Book Of Running, and below humorist Erma Bombeck’s If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?). Two years later The Real War reached No. 3.
It is worth noting that, in an article appearing with its nonfiction list the week Memoirs entered it, the Times pointed out that while the book had sold less well than expected in the Northeast, it had been much more successful in stores in the Mid-Atlantic states, where its sales in the first week after its appearance accounted for 16% of all nonfiction hardcover titles, and in the Midwest (15%) and West Coast (11%). The book stayed in the bestseller lists for several months and at year’s end was at sixth place in the Publishers Weekly list of nonfiction sellers for 1978, making it the most successful Presidential autobiography until Clinton’s My Life a quarter-century later.