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Conservative Authors Fire a New Weapon: Books with Ideas That Have Consequences

(This is excerpt No. 37 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.)

For decades, liberals had considered the world of books to be their exclusive domain.  In their view, conservatives could barely read and write, having been the last to emerge from the Neanderthal forests and Regnery Publishingswamps.  After all, everyone they knew who published and read books in Manhattan and Boston was a liberal.

As with so many other liberal delusions, William F. Buckley Jr. was the first popular post-war (World War II) conservative to shatter those liberal pretenses.  But the emergence of alternative media soon unleashed a flood of conservative authors, bypassing the gated book enclave in New York City.  Conservative publishers and entrepreneurs created their own venues for these authors—Henry Regnery in Chicago, Neil McCaffrey and his Conservative Book Club, and then the new Regnery Publishing in Washington, D.C., which soon had a higher percentage of bestselling titles than those elitist book houses in Manhattan.

We saw great cause for celebration—but also had words of caution for conservatives—as we surveyed the world of books in 2004, when America’s Right Turn was published.

The surprising resilience of books

Newspapers, as we’ve seen, have been sliding downward in circulation for decades; Americans increasingly read less (and view more) to get their news; and the news reading that does still take place is done in ever shorter spurts of time.  From this you might gather that Americans have been so conditioned by television sound bites that they can no longer concentrate on reading for any purpose, much less reading for the amount of time it takes to get through a book.  That’s what we would have guessed, too, until we came across some interesting (and encouraging) observations in the 2002 Pew report, “Public’s News Habits Little Changed by Sept. 11.”

Reading for news has taken a dive, thanks to competition from radio and television, plus the growing competition from other activities such as exercise and athletics.  But, adds Pew: “Reading also is a popular daily activity, despite the drop in newspapers and magazine consumption.  One in three (34 percent) say they read a book yesterday, not including school or work-related reading, with most saying they read for an hour or more.  Twice as many Americans (18 percent) spent an hour reading yesterday as spent an hour with a newspaper (8 percent).  And nonfiction outpolled fiction by a slight 19 percent to 13 percent margin.”

That’s not all the good news for us book lovers.  Pew also reports:

While younger generations are turning away from newspapers, this does not mean that they are not reading.  Younger Americans are just as likely as their elders to read both books and magazines.  In fact, Americans under age 35 are more likely to have read a book on any given day than to have picked up a newspaper.  Young people read nonfiction slightly more than fiction, and they are just as likely as older people to be regular readers of news magazines, business magazines, and literary magazines.

Underground bestsellers of 1964

We can make a good case for the argument that the conservative movement was started by avid book readers who acted out the title and premise of Richard Weaver’s 1959 classic, Ideas Have Consequences.  Conservative authors and publishers such as Henry Regnery played an important role in the formation of the conservative movement.  And in 1964, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo, and J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon mobilized grassroots conservative support for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.  These books sold millions of copies without benefit of a New York publisher or even a mention in the New York Times bestseller list.

This was all under the radar of the liberal establishment.  The alternative media used by these authors to publicize their books were the mimeograph machine, a list of friends, and self-published paperbacks (long before Amazon).  Tom Paine was alive and well in 1964.

Turning 1964 into a continuing book revolution

Neil McCaffrey was an ardent Catholic, an ardent conservative, and a skilled practitioner of direct mail.  He had gained editorial experience at Doubleday & Co., then was mail order manager for the Macmillan Company, so he had both editorial and marketing experience as the conservative movement geared up for the 1964 Goldwater campaign. 

McCaffrey saw millions of conservatives mobilizing, yet the few small book publishers that were conservative could barely get their titles into bookstores.  That spelled opportunity to him.  He founded the Conservative Book Club to promote wider distribution of conservative books; he founded Arlington House to publish many of those books; and he founded the Nostalgia Book Club to serve as an outlet for his other great interest – the music and films of the 1920s through the ’40s.

Marty Gross, who ran the Nostalgia Book Club and helped McCaffrey on the conservative side as well, recalled that “at its peak, in the 1970s, the Conservative Book Club had some 75,000 members.  We had traditional conservatives, libertarians, Republicans, Southern Democrats, anti-communists, family values people, your hard-money people, or ‘gold bugs,’ and members who weren’t at home in any other established political faction so they felt most at home in conservatism and the CBC.  We supplied books for all of them.” 

“At a time when other, broader book clubs and publishing ventures foundered or were apt to get into trouble,” Gross continues, “we prospered.  Today McCaffrey would be called a niche publisher.  In a way his vision was precocious, because that’s the direction the book club business later took.  We probably could have grown even larger, but he resisted any attempt to grow the company beyond what he could manage himself.”

Arlington House published notable political books, such as Kevin Phillips’ first book, The Emerging Republican Majority, which served as a blueprint to election victory for the Nixon camp.  And Arlington House was the nation’s foremost publisher of hard-money books during the dismal Carter years of long lines in front of gas stations, when gold and silver were riding high. 

Arlington House and the Conservative Book Club were also pioneers in conservative religious ecumenicalism.  McCaffrey knew how to appeal to his home base – conservative Catholics like himself – but he took special pride later when he figured out how to appeal to Protestant Evangelicals as well.  Arlington House also published the first books for politically conservative Jews, and even got the U.S. rights to publish the official 25th anniversary commemoration of the State of Israel, with an introduction by Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Later the company faced a series of ownership changes (at one point Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney bought into the parent company).  It sank into oblivion after Neil McCaffrey’s death under management that didn’t know how to appeal to the conservative movement, only to be resuscitated years later when Tom Phillips bought the Conservative Book Club and added it to his Eagle Publishing stable.  Neil McCaffrey had proven that a market existed for conservative books, but he could never have imagined just how huge that market would someday become.

Thank you, President Clinton

Well into the 1990s, most New York book-publishing houses treated conservative authors as inhabitants of terra incognita, those uncharted wild areas on the edge of the map filled with strange beasts.  It wasn’t where they sold books.  Oh, sure, if you became president of the United States you could get your memoirs published, but ordinary conservative authors found it tough going, hawking their wares on the streets of Manhattan.  Every so often there’d be a match between a friendly editor willing to try something new and convince the publisher to take a chance with a conservative, and every so often an imprint such as the Free Press or Basic Books would come under the control of management friendly to some brand of conservatism or anti-communism – that is, until new management came along.  But the general feeling along Book Row was that conservatives, whatever they do, don’t read books; and if by perchance they do, they certainly don’t buy the kinds of books we’d want our friends to catch us publishing. 

The publishing house that led the way was none other than the granddaddy of conservative booksellers, Regnery Publishing.  When its founder, Henry Regnery, died, his son Alfred Regnery became the new publisher and moved operations from Chicago to Washington, D.C.  Later, conservative newsletter publisher Tom Phillips bought Regnery, the Washington newsweekly Human Events, and the Conservative Book Club, placing them all under his Eagle Publishing umbrella.  Regnery is now headed by long-time Phillips executive Marji Ross.

As the 1990s unfolded, conservatives were outraged by the Clinton scandals, both political and domestic.  All those conservative columnists and writers we’ve talked about in this chapter had a perfect target for that bestseller they knew they could write, but New York houses weren’t interested, of course.  Regnery became the conservatives’ publisher at least partly by default – no other publisher was interested in conservative books – and Regnery cleaned up.  This tiny operation (by New York book conglomerate standards) publishes only 25 or so titles a year, and in 2002 seven of them landed on The New York Times bestseller list.  That had to be a book industry record for the percentage of one publisher’s titles making it onto the nation’s most prestigious bestseller list.  Moreover, Regnery followed up with more Times bestsellers in 2003.

Not only was Regnery an “alternative” book publisher, it sold its books largely through alternative channels.  Regnery authors are often given intensive training on how to be effective on radio and TV, then placed on a barrage of national and local talk shows.  Author interviews on talk radio are an especially effective medium for selling books.  The goal is not so much to get the book reviewed (very few people read book reviews) as to get it treated as news – controversial or breaking news.  A sizzling appearance on a good talk show can get a book on Amazon.com’s bestselling chart overnight.

Which brings up another arrow in the new conservative arsenal.  Amazon.com is a gift to anyone shut out of establishment review and sales outlets.  So, too, are most of the big bookselling chains, such as Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble, and price clubs such as Costco.  There’s no noticeable ideological bias in any of their operations, unlike the leftist bias of so many independent bookstores and the leftist bias among establishment reviewers.

Regnery’s success in marketing conservative books through alternative channels caught the attention of major New York publishers and other alternative publishing ventures.  The results are a lot of new competition for Regnery, and more opportunities for conservative authors. 

A caveat, and a warning to conservatives

We noted earlier how the conservative resurgence of bestselling book titles came in response to the Clinton administration and its policies.  As we’ve seen with other alternative media, conservatives thrive in “attack mode” – particularly when the “other side” is in power. 

That fact begs the question, How long will the conservative book renaissance last, now that the Republicans – “conservative” Republicans, supposedly – are the political establishment in Washington?  Can “conservative” books continue to sell when they defend the biggest-spending administration since Franklin Delano Roosevelt?  It would be one thing if these conservative authors stuck to principle and attacked Big Government policies no matter which party was in power, but regrettably they too often fail to make the distinction between conservative and Republican.

In 2002 and early 2003, conservative titles dominated the political bestsellers.  By late 2003 the tide seemed to be shifting, with both sides roughly equal.  Today, anti-Bush and liberal books seem to be in ascendancy.  As for the future, there’s this warning from USA Today: “In the first half of 2004, major commercial publishers will publish at least 25 books critical of Bush.”

Such are the perils of being the defender of the establishment when your natural mode is to be on the attack.

 

America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24. “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution”
  25. “Talk Radio Demolishes Hillarycare, and Provides a New Battleground for the Culture Wars”
  26. “Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio”
  27. “How the NRA Used Alternative Media to Save the Second Amendment”
  28. “C-SPAN Starts the Revolution Against TV’s Liberal Gatekeepers”
  29. “Fox Replaces CNN as King of Cable, Giving Conservatives a Voice on TV News”
  30. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  31. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  32. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  33. “Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory”
  34. “Cable TV—With Fox in the Lead—Becomes America’s Primary Source of Campaign News” 
  35. Political News and Impact: Newspapers Tumble—and Liberals Face Competition
  36. “Conservative Writers Get New Venues as Columnists and in Magazines”
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