Shelf Dealing: The Publishing/Politics Money Machine

Amy Coney Barrett's $2 million book deal raised eyebrows, but it's perfectly legal.

AMY CONEY BARRETT’S got herself a book deal.

Sentinel, the conservative imprint of Penguin Random House that publishes such esteemed wordsmiths as Brian Kilmeade, Jordan B. Peterson, and Utah Senator Mike Lee, is ponying up a reported $2 million advance for the new Supreme Court Justice and first-time author’s magnum opus.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with what “$2 million advance” really means. The publishing world operates on an antiquated business model, conceived in an era when the logistics involved with putting a physical book out into the world were more arduous, complicated, and expensive than today, when we have print-on-demand, Kindle, Audible, Excel, and scanning technology that makes it possible to track sales almost in real time. The advance was intended to streamline the payment process.

The first thing to understand is that the hefty “suggested retail price” stamped on the jacket of a hardcover book has to be divvied up among the author, the author’s agent, the publisher, and the bookseller. The former agent and writer Nathan Bransford breaks it down nicely on his blog:

There were also some questions about how much an author receives from a book sale, so I thought I’d provide a handy dandy breakdown.…here’s a basic (and rough) rule of thumb to help with your calculations:

Start with a $24.95 hardcover.

Discounts to booksellers vary, but for a rough estimate figure that the publisher receives around 50%.

Let’s say the author has a 10% retail royalty, and the author has an agent who receives 15% of the author’s share. This works out to (again, roughly):

$12.48 to the bookseller (50%)
$9.98 to the publisher (50% minus author/agent share)
$2.12 to the author (10% of retail minus 15%)
$0.38 to the agent (15% of 10%)

Barrett’s book—let’s give it the (fake) working title Perfectly Legal—will likely have a higher cover price: $36, say. She might also have better terms. So let’s say for sake of argument that for each copy sold of Perfectly Legal, she will take home something like $3, and Sentinel something like $15.

That three bucks Barrett earns per book is the royalty. The $2,000,000 she’s getting up front is, technically, an advance on royalties. Which means she would have to sell a diabolical number of copies—666,666—to earn back her advance. Even if Sentinel prints that many copies, which it almost certainly won’t, she is unlikely to ever move that many units. And that’s the sneaky thing about publishing: writers don’t have to return the advance—ever—even if the book is a complete clunker. Publishers don’t necessarily expect authors to make it back (and thank god for that!). Even perennial best-sellers sometimes fail to do so.

For frame of reference: paperback writers1 of fiction like Yours Truly receive advances charitably described as “modest.” We also earn less on each sale, because the retail price of paperbacks is lower. I make roughly a buck a book from the $13.99 cover price on my two novels—or, rather, a buck of each book sale goes toward my advance. Despite my two advances being roughly $2 million less than Barrett’s, it would still take everyone reading today’s column to buy a new copy of my first novel, and every other reader to also buy a copy of the second, for me to make back the advances, and thus earn royalty checks on future sales. And my books did relatively well. Both of them came out in France, and the second, Fathermucker, spent one glorious week on the L.A. Times bestseller list—making me, always and forever, an “L.A. Times bestselling author.” (That is more an indictment on that fine paper’s methodology than a reflection of sales, but it sounds impressive, and I ain’t complaining.)

Why do publishers shell out these fancy advances? Because whether or not the author breaks even, they almost always make enough to recoup the initial investment. Sentinel will be in the black if they move 133,333 units of Perfectly Legal—still a big number, but more attainable, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.

Another piece of this puzzle is remaindered copies. When Barrett’s masterpiece drops, there will be a gajillion hardcovers at the box stores, and at the airports, and maybe even at the supermarkets. She will be fixing her creepy stare on you from a display of shiny book jackets as you scoot by the endcaps at Target and Walmart. But any copies of Perfectly Legal that are not sold within a specified amount of time can be returned by the bookseller to the publisher for a full refund. Publishers are then stuck with hundreds of copies of a book that no one wants. Sometimes these are “pulped”—recycled. Sometimes they are sold at a discount to the big retailers. When you buy a book that has a black mark across the pages, fished out of a big display box at Costco, you have purchased a remaindered copy.

On the topic of remaindered copies, allow me a brief diversion. I have it on good authority that a certain bookseller, which I will not name, became an industry giant through a vaguely criminal enterprise. To be clear: this cannot be proved—there are no “receipts”—and may well be just an urban legend, but it’s worth relating just the same. The story goes that way back when, several big New York publishing houses contracted with a certain waste management company, which name I don’t know, to dispose of remaindered copies of their books. But the waste management company did not dispose of them. Instead, it delivered them to this bookseller, which marked them down to Crazy Eddie-low prices and offered them for sale in the bargain bins. (The bookseller’s inventory literally fell off the back of a truck.) The waste management company got paid twice—by the publishers, for hauling the copies away, and by the bookseller, for bringing the copies there instead of the dump. The bookseller, despite offering such steep discounts, made huge margins on each unit sold. The publishers, meanwhile, cut out of profits on the sale, got screwed. Other bookstores, who did not have a contract with a shady waste management company, also got screwed. And it goes without saying that the authors got screwed, because authors always get screwed—unless they are handmaidens in People of Praise who moonlight as Supreme Court Justices.

Moving on.

One hundred thirty-three thousand copies is, to put it delicately, a fuck-ton. A work of literary fiction from a first-time author that sold that well would be considered a big success. And two million bananas seems, on the surface, an outrageous amount of money to pay for a book of this kind. The only analog on the list of best-selling individual books of all time is 2018’s Becoming, which sold 14 million copies. What prompted such largesse by the publishers? Do they really believe Amy Coney Barrett is Michelle Obama? Was there a bidding war for Perfectly Legal? Even if there was…are we sure there is an actual audience for the prose stylings of Ms. Barrett?

Hoping for answers to these questions, I reached out to Sentinel’s editorial director via email and Twitter. She did not respond. But we can certainly guess at the logic here.

When Donald Trump, Jr. published Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us in November of 2019, it immediately soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Why? Because the RNC and other Republican organizations were buying copies by the pallet-load, to give away to donors. The Times admitted as much—the title had a dagger (†) beside it, which indicates “institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases.” Per the Times, Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA bought a shit-ton of copies of Triggered, as did the National Republican Campaign Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee and (because of course) Citizens United. All of that media attention, plus the spot on the Times list and the perquisites that bestows, meant that Triggered was also purchased by actual consumers—although I would be willing to wager that more people have read “Tinker, Tailor, Mobster, Trump” than consumed Don Junior’s juvenile screed from cover to cover. MAGA are not a literary bunch; they’d sooner burn a book than read one. I bet Kimberly Guilfoyle didn’t even read it, even as she helped him promote it.

I should add that this shady business of political organizations bulk-buying copies of political books is not exclusive to Republicans. Bernie Sanders, for one, did much the same thing with his 2015 title Outsider in the White House. His own campaign spent almost half a million dollars on copies of what was a repurposed edition of 1998’s Outsider in the House. The key to his fortune, as the longtime Soviet apologist himself said, was writing best-selling books. That may be—but it ain’t exactly a level playing field if your own campaign plunks down $445,000 for copies.

But look: Don Junior is a professional troll who has a legitimate constituency among gun-loving, big-game-killing, hate-mongering, lib-owning, mouth-breathing incels. He’s allowed to put out a book, just as much as Hunter Biden is. And Bernie is hardly the only politician who has enjoyed a lucrative sideline career in letters. (Cut to Winston Churchill, raising a martini glass from the sweet hereafter). As I type this, the top spot on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list belongs to On the House, the new memoir by the Ted Cruz-baiting former House Speaker and indoor tanning enthusiast John Boehner. Indeed, there is a long tradition of politicians, and especially former presidents, putting out memoirs. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his while he was dying of throat cancer, in part to leave a nest egg for his wife. Published by Mark Twain, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant sold 350,000 copies in 1885-6, after Grant’s death; hardbound copies of the two-volume set sold for a whopping $12. His widow racked up almost $13 million in royalties, in today’s dollars. A century and a half later, Grant’s book remains the gold standard for political memoir, which is what happens when you are one of the greatest generals in the history of the country and one of its greatest writers is your editor.

The difference with Amy Coney Barrett is that she’s not a politician; she’s a jurist. She’s supposed to at least pretend to be impartial. This could be easily achieved, incidentally, by her taking a more modest advance and earning royalties based on actual sales rather than rose-colored projections. But Barrett doesn’t give a hoot about optics. If she won’t recuse herself from the case brought by one of the dark money groups that paid big bucks to help install her, she sure as hell ain’t walking away from [in Dr. Evil voice, with pinky in mouth] two MILLION dollars.

And the optics are—as Bloomberg put it so eloquently in its headline—bad. What it looks like is that Amy Coney Barrett is being paid off. From all appearances, that’s what’s happening here. I mean, news of the book deal came out just as she’s about to hear a case involving Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers joint. It’s almost like she’s trolling us.

What follows is a hypothetical. Let me be clear about that.

Let’s say that I’m the head of a dark money group of like-minded radical Catholic neo-Fascist rich dudes hellbent on subverting democracy by installing compromised justices on the Supreme Court. (I know this requires an enormous suspension of disbelief, but bear with me). Let’s name our pretend dark money group Thumb on the Scales—TOTS, for short.

Now let’s say I ring up the publisher at Sentinel—whom I likely know pretty well, as the publisher at Sentinel has for decades been putting out books by conservative thinkers I sometimes take to dinner—and I say, “Hallo, old sport. What’s this I hear about Amy Coney Barrett writing a book? I think that’s grand! I’m so excited that I can tell you right now that TOTS is going to buy 150,000 copies.”

And so, in our little hypothetical—again, let me stress, this is a made-up scenario—the publisher of Sentinel goes ahead and offers Barrett a $2 million advance, because he knows that TOTS, with its Bag-of-Holding-deep pockets, will be bringing in $15 a pop for those 150,000 copies—a grand total of $2,250,000, virtually guaranteed. That would more than cover Barrett’s advance and the cost of writing, editing, printing, and distributing Perfectly Legal. Two-point-two mill for Thumb on the Scales, meanwhile, is chump change, a rounding error.

See what just happened? A dark money group, whose donors are unknown, just transferred two million bucks to a sitting Supreme Court Justice, using a venerable publishing house as an intermediary. And all ACB has to do to make it legit, in our little fantastical scenario, is produce a book. Which she can and probably will pay someone else to write. And which no one will actually read.

Let me say one more time: this is a hypothetical. I am not accusing the publisher of Sentinel—whose editorial director, let me remind you, was given the opportunity to respond to my inquiries—of anything illicit, untoward, or even imprudent. On the contrary, this is a savvy business decision. To me, the $2 million price tag seems a bit steep, but what do I know? I’m a jealous novelist, not a publisher. In reality, the Sentinel publisher didn’t need a phone call from anyone to guess that there will be a market for Perfectly Legal. When we consider all the conservative organizations that routinely bulk-buy books like this, and the religious groups who dig Amy’s Atwoodian vibe, and the law schools and law students and lawyers, and the media buzz the book is sure to get, and the ordinary folks curious to know if our newest Supreme Court Justice really is a cultish rightwing loon, an Amy Coney Barrett book deal is good business. I’d do the deal, too, if I were in his wing-tipped shoes.

The thing is, it doesn’t even matter.

The beauty part, for all the parties involved with a scenario like the one we’ve just gamed out, is that, as our fake working title implies, it’s perfectly legal.

It’s perfectly legal for Amy Coney Barrett to write a book and be paid as much of an advance as she can get—after all, we are not communists!

It’s perfectly legal for a political imprint of a galactically large publishing house to pay whatever advance it deems appropriate.

And it’s perfectly legal for a dark money group to purchase many thousands of copies of such a book.

Thus, it’s perfectly legal for any organization, be it the Federalist Society, the Judicial Crisis Network, People of Praise, RAGA, APF, DAR, NRA, NXIVM, NAMBLA, you name it, to funnel bricks of Benjamins to Amy Coney Barrett—provided she produces the requisite pages. Bang out 50,000 words (we anticipate this will be a slim volume), get real paid. What could be easier?

Poor Brett Kavanaugh! He concocted that cuckoo story about baseball tickets and then perjured himself trying to explain the sudden influx of capital in his bank account. Turns out, all he had to do was write a book.

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Photo credit: Amy Coney Barrett Brontë.

1

It’s based on a novel by a man named (O) Lear.