tv Publisher Peter Osnos Political Books CSPAN October 19, 2022 2:53pm-3:20pm EDT
hardcover sales. and now more on the world of political books with peter osnos founder of public affairs books. well, mr. osnos, you have been in book publishing for 40 years, but prior to that. you're a journalist for many years. how did you make that transition? well, i'd reached the point where i thought i had sort of fulfilled whatever plan i could have in journalism. in the sense that i've been a foreign correspondent a variety of places. i've been an editor and the president chairman of random house said, you know journalism is really not a fit profession
for growing and if you ever get serious, call me. so i did and they found a position for me is a senior editor at random house, which was obviously a great place to go and so i sort of made a lateral move. out of the washington post into being a first book editor and eventually a book publisher. so it was a mid-career move. i brought with me all the experience. i had in journalism, which turned out to be very valuable and connections. so i i know one of the last thing i realized almost as soon as i got there that the difference is in the newspaper business you went out and got the story in the publishing business you get the story and then you have to sell the story. and i kind of enjoyed that part of it as much as i enjoyed getting stories. so that's why i ended up doing the career. i did well in a recent article and publishers weekly that you penned you say that you became a specialist. in acquiring political books how
to how did that happen well, i'm my background in journalism certainly was important. i mean i've been in you know, i've been in washington as the national letter of the washington post. which was a very high ranking position, but not that was number two in the national desk. um, i covered presidents as i i was in covered the vietnam war from both ends. i covered the soviet union and so on so i had a very wide range of experience that i could bring to knowing whether a book was was of interest. and that's how i started doing it my first my first major major major political books were both very satisfying. when was tip o'neill's memoirs called of the house. and the other one was sam donaldson's white house memoirs called. hold on mr. president and both of them were great successes. because i was able i think in
the case of sam, we finally understood i had to learn lesson that sam really was somebody who was better at talking than he is at sort of narrative writing. so i sort of talked it out of him. and in the end we got a wonderful book. and tip, you know, it's just a great storyteller and the book was very entertaining and very successful. so right then i had these two and then i did jimmy carter and roseland carter together. so in the first couple years i had these three major books by major public figures and i did a bunch of other books one with the great stanley carno the correspondent for south asia, of course southeast asia corresponding want to pull a sir. so just sort of you know in the way that either was going to work or it didn't started to work. and once people got a sense that i was doing political books. they would send them to me. and at random house, you know, we were considered one of the really major publishers in the country. and you know, i had a bankroll
that i could use to buy books. so i was able to get as i said, i think in the piece that in the end i did for presidents. jimmy carter and roseland. i did six or seven books with them. i did two books with bill clinton one was a campaign manifesto with gore and the other one was his campaign book and 96. i did two books with what was his name trump art of the deal. and before it was long before he was running for president. and a second follow-up and then i did barack obama's dreams for my father. so when you think about that, that's four, very major public for presidents. of a very different kind and i work with each one of them in close enough quarters to be able to have real opinions about them as as people as individuals and certainly as politicians. well peter also, i want to ask you because in your article and publishers weekly you talk about the auction process and what you
paid and for tip o'neill you did an advance of about a million dollars and it was really and for barack obama from my father. $40,000 well, let's put this. remember tip with speaker of the house and retiring speaker of the house, and we're a great public figure in politician. i was in a heated auction. and we prevailed. it's the first time anybody like anybody. i certainly am not spend a million dollars before we say a big enough deal that it got noted the front page in time said o'neill gets a million bucks. the barack story was that he was in the president of the harvard law review and the new york times reported the fact that the first black president of the harvard law review and he got a contract with simon and schuster. and he missed the deadline and they canceled it. and they wanted the money back. and so his agent came to me said
look there's a very interesting young fellow named barack obama. would you like to meet with them? and i did. and i was very impressed. this was 1994 maybe. and 95 at the latest. and he had written much of change to my father. we finished the book and published it and at the time we came out. it did nicely was well reviewed and so on but it really wasn't a sensation nine years later 2004. when he spoke as the keynote speaker at the democratic convention the exactly the same book. was reissued and so four million copies. and when he and michelle left the white house. he got 65 million for his books. and i like to say that the ark of $40,000 in 1994 to a young man just out of law school and starting a career in politics to 65 million is probably a some of record in publishing. but in both cases, he probably
deserved 40,000 for me and 65 million from the people who paid him that what's the auction process like? auctions are a function of the modern way in which material is copied. and you know in the old days when you had to have carbon copies or something. most agents and agents were much less sort of major figures at the time. they would send it to a publisher. or maybe two one copy one carbon copy. then along came 0. and making copies and you could send it to 10 people at the same time. and somewhere along the line it became an accepted norm. to have multiple what's called multiple submissions and if you have multiple submissions, and you're an agent the logical thing to do is get the maximum amount of money. so you have an auction. and in today's world the
prevailing system or what for you know significant books? is always an auction? and that is why the advances have gotten bigger because auctions tend to exaggerate advances or not enhanced advances. and my view about it is and i acknowledge that it's easy for me to have this view because it's not my problem is that this is corrosive. not to the auctions necessarily occurrosive. but when it comes to political books we've now got a culture in which people almost every major political anybody who you know had 15 minutes in the limelight people who for example, testified colonel vindman in the in the fiona hill in the first impeachment both ended up with major book countries. anybody who's in the limelight now gets a book contract. and while i have no reason to
object to people getting good money. what does bother me are people who have served in public life as politicians or public servants? and who see that service as eventually a payday? not that they shouldn't be able to write books. absolutely should. but my view is they should be paid what they earn. not on a guess meaning in an auction a publisher is going to pay let's say a thousand dollars or even you know, more likely a million dollars. right for a guess that person has not written the book and in many cases won't be right in the book himself or herself. anyway, they have you know co-author. so they're getting a million bucks from a publisher just for showing up. and that to me is offensive. which should happen is write the book. the book will be sold. you will get royalties on the book. you will get every penny you earn. but no publisher should be throwing vests sums of money.
at politicians just because they were politicians. and that's just something that i believe very strongly. and i would say that my view is fine. pretty much a minority view. well you write in publishers weekly, i would pledge to the politicians only royalties say 15% of the list price for each copy sold for going in advance. i have made this offer a number of times over the years and can affirm that no one has ever taken me up on it. that's exactly right. what happened here peter is that and when when new member of the year that newt gingrich 1994 did contract with america remember that was how he and the republicans took over the house. is eric it was newt gingrich's contract with america? and at random has a times books at the time. i just picked up the book because it was a public and effect the public document reissued the book.
contract with america newt gingrich's future in america and it became a significant national bestseller. then he became speaker was he hadn't even been sworn in his speaker and somebody stuck their head in my office said, you know new just got four million dollars. from harper collins for a book about being coming speaker. where and i said wait a minute, we just published. contract with america, which is his political vision. and now he's getting four million dollars and he hasn't even been sworn in that was to me offensive. it was also noted i should say by david streifel the publishing reporter for the washington post. and he picked up the fact why is new who hasn't even been sworn in yet already getting four million dollars. and the result was they said to nude it was said at the time. you're going to get royalties. i mean the house of representatives imposed this on
him. you're going to get royalties, but you cannot take the four million dollars. i thought that set of present. apparently not. because right now if you look at the most recent people like adam schiff, who was the the head of the impeachment panel jamie raskin another major figure in the impeachment issues james comey. when he was in charge of the fbi, and these people got very substantial advances. on books based entirely on their experience as public figures and that to me is a very odd reward for public service and kind of corrupting. because it says to you. the more controversial i am the most no more notorious i am the more money. i'm going to make and that's a publishers it, you know prerogative to spend that money
and it's always irritated me and so that you know, so i can't really be accused of hypocrisy once i started public affairs, which is 25 years ago. i would never have ever paid any of the kinds of money that people were throwing around now, but because of you know, one thing in another i was able to publish a number of major major books by people like paul volcker the great fed chair earning jordan the great civil rights leader george soros who obviously doesn't do it for the money. i was able to find the wesley clarke when he came back after having won the war in kosovo was able to agree with me on a contract without having to pay ridiculous amounts of money. so there was a way to do it, but you had to have an approach that i was able to take because of my experience and most people choose or can't do that. and so what happens is they go into an auction. they meet with the public figure. sometimes that public figure doesn't even show up for the meeting. and there's an auction and then they write i have somebody write the book for me. it's just you know, it's not a
good process in my view, but that's the process. so peter austenos, let's go back to your work with presidents. did you make money on the art of the deal? and what were you what were you dealing? what were you dealing with president trump? oh god the art of the deal. is a remote is truly a remarkable story and if you don't mind my touting my own memoir, especially good view watching history happen. there's a chapter called editing donald trump. um, and what happened was i had just arrived at random house. brand new fresh-faced editor and the owner random has mr. newhouse. was already very impressed with donald trump. he used it. very impressive donald trump because his best friend was the notorious lawyer boy cohn and roy cohn said you got to you got to do something with this trump fellow because he's a cover he built the trump tower remember that this is in the 8687 period
so psy took me along to meet with mr. trump. there was no agent and no lawyer. and trump was so flattered that mr. newhouse a very sort of eminent figure in the world of arts letters would come to his office. he agreed to immediately to a book contract. and the book became art of the deal. there was a writer named tony schwartz or had already pitched a book to trump. and that was the book. and when it came out in december of 87 it event immediately to the top of the best cellist stayed there for six months sold a million copies a million copies clean and of course everybody was already saying well trump bought the cops. i can tell you trump doesn't buy his own book. you know, it's just not made that way. so it was a huge triumph and it certainly launched donald trump as a national figure. and one story i always tell because it's really relevant is a year or so 18 months or so later. i happened to be in atlantic
city because a close relative of mine. who was then a young man a boy. wanted to see some wrestling. and we went to this wrestling slack down, whatever, you know number nine. 18,000 people in the atlantic city arena in 1988 or 89? hulk hogan that kind of thing an incomes donald trump, who is the promoter of that wrestling match? and 18,000 people stand and cheer that's the moment. i knew that he has a hold. on a part of the american population that really was already long before the apprentice. based on the book based on his reputation. so when he became president, i saw that as they fulfillment of something that had started really in the mid 80s. what we then saw was a man, who was the same human being but a very different person i think in the sense that everything he believed in the past. was on steroids and thing that people under misunderstood about
trump was how incredibly focused and disciplined he can be when it's about him. he doesn't smoke. he didn't drink. he lives over the store. he makes up all those names which he humiliates people. he retaliates against literally anybody who he thinks has turned on him always has and the final point is he's always always managed to get away with it. for bankruptcies mueller probe to impeachments and he's walked away and he lost the popular vote by three million to hillary and was inaugurated president. so what you see in the story of donald trump, is this extraordinary arc of somebody? who came literally not from nowhere? that's for sure. but who was a new york builder? in the mid 80s and somehow his hold on popular image and his ability to project the people. got him to the white house and we all know what the consequences were for.
depending on what your view is better or worse. peter askinos who also write and publishers weekly about conservative books and conservative book publishing the enormous sales of conservative right-wing or populist books. has been a formidable marketplace phenomenon since the 1990s. well, what we now know is that there is there is a very significant audience of people. a universe. let's put it of people. or whom those are very important? why are they important? because they are convinced that if it goes through quote the mainstream media or the media of any kind, they're not going to get their story. so they published these books and you get a chance to be spend an evening with you know, think of all of these guys. i mean, you know the number of them they've already written books that came out of the they
came out of the impeachment period or the you know, it's just i'm trying to think of i think there was a reference yesterday mark meadows book. gee, i didn't know you broke. i mean the point about it is that they speaker whatever is in chief of staff mark meadows. i i think the fact is that the hardcore on the right is committed deeply in a way that maybe other people underestimate. and that is why they buy those books now. some of them are sold in bulk. so for example ted cruz, i think it was who used don't $200,000 of his own campaign money. i don't want to be 100% sure. let's say a politician spent $200,000 of his own money buying books. that'll do. so i mean too much 200,000 of his campaign money to buy books. so what i'm saying, is that on that side of the of the
political divide there is a kind of depth. and i guess i saw it with trump if you appeal to somebody's visceral excitement if you're inspirational if you make if it if they make you angry. um, they're very likely to you know, be more buying a book. well, mr. oznos, we've talked about some of your successes. is there a flop in there you'd like to mention? oh my god, a flap me matt. oh, i well the second since you want to ask the second trump book. so inevitably we're going to do a sequel after are the deal. because it was such a great success. and so this time of course. he said, you know, i want a sequel. and mr. nurse said of course, we'll have a sequel and this time we paid five times more as an advance than we paid for the first book because he was a huge bestseller. anyway that happened to coincide
with a moment in his financial career where everything was going wrong. i mean and the morning we were we were publishing this new book, which was going to be called at the top. i think that was what it was. yeah surviving at the top is what it was called. and the truth, is that the book where he was five billion dollars in debt to banks of which three billion was his own money. and it really did look like he was going to go under. but trump being trump. he didn't go under. the book went under so instead of settling the million copies that we sold the first time we sold about 10% of that and we had shipped too many and so yeah, what happened was this? oh, no another one. do you have time for one more? bill clinton's 1996 campaign book which was called from hope to history. have you know from his hope arkansas and so on and it was a political agenda?
and it was a perfectly fine book. but we had kept it secret. because it was very hard to do a book with a sitting present. so we had to get a contract and so on. so we finally got the book done. and when we announced the book people were so stunned that there was a secret book by the president of the united states in 1996. that we had orders for 600,000 copies. well, i had read the book. it was a fine book. but it sure is how it wasn't a book that was going to knock anybody's socks off because it was written by a sitting president. it was a political manifesto. so my last and my last engagement with that book was a piece in the washington post, which said the book is being returned from bookstores by the train load. so i didn't sell very well, but when i wrote to the president or actually was on c-span he was asked why the book didn't sell better by brian lamb and and his answer was well, i didn't have much time to promote it which i always thought was a very sweet
way of deflecting the issue, but so my trump, and second trump and second clinton both were i would have to describe as flops. well final question do you mr. oznos? let's turn the camera on you and especially good view watching history happen, right? how is that done? and what was your advance? you've got to be kidding, right? well what i did was what happened was i public affairs, which is the company. i founded 25 years ago when i left it. knowing what i know about the book business. instead of sending my book out for auctions or anything like that and having you know, dozen publishers say no i created with my wife. we established a little publishing company called platform books llc. and it's what i call a gig publisher. meaning there's no real staff.
but we picked up people who i knew were really good. so i had an excellent editor and excellent managing editor meeting the production person. i had a great sales team that i had come to know very well at ingram, so i used these people to publish my book myself. it was investment. clearly because i paid for everything. but the truth of the matter is i knew ultimately that this was going to be up to me and i found that satisfying and i didn't have to ask anybody for in advance. and it did what it did. well, i got an hour on c-span for q&a. i did pbs npr it did a whole bunch of bookstores. i really did was able to talk about what the book was about and a great many places and what i think i did was i reached a great many people millions and millions of people through all of these things and about zero zero point one percent bought the book which is about what you expect them. it is world, but i'm very satisfied because it was a book. i wanted to write and it's a
book i wrote and in it you'll see that c-span gets a lot of credit. for having helped me in various ways. well, here's the book cover. it's called an especially good view watching history happen by long time book publisher and journalist peter osnos, and if you are interested in the article that we've been talking abou it's in publishers weekly and it's called the political book in a political world. mr. osnos, thanks for being on about books with us. thanks very much, peter. and this is about books. book tvs podcast and program look