WASHINGTON -- In a sales surge that surprised politicians and booksellers alike, five liberal books will be among The New York Times's top 15 hard-cover nonfiction bestsellers on today's list, mounting what some sales specialists see as a left-wing assault on the conservatives' decade-long hold on popular culture.
Until now, book publishing -- like talk radio and opinion magazines -- was dominated by right-wing political titles, including polemics by the leading radio and television pundits. The airwaves, bestseller lists, and the opinion press were widely viewed as links in a network that helped prompt investigations of President Clinton and assisted the elections of a Republican House, Senate, and presidency.
The extent of the conservative dominance of popular culture so alarmed Democrats that former vice president Al Gore, among others, proposed earlier this year creating a new television network to promote liberal causes.
This week, "Treason" by the popular conservative agitator Ann Coulter clocks in at number five, but no other right-leaning political book appears anywhere in the top 30. The top position belongs to Al Franken's "Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)," a satirical body blow to the conservative punditry. A more cerebral attack on the same conservatives, Joe Conason's "Big Lies" registers at number eight.
"Thieves in High Places," by Texas populist Jim Hightower is at number nine, and "Stupid White Men" by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, which had dropped off the list only to surge back in recent weeks, is at number 15. Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History," now at number four, continues its four-month drive to becoming one of the top sellers of the year.
"What goes around comes around," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "A year ago I was doing interviews on why there were so many conservative books out there."
Teicher says liberals were slow to latch onto a new type of book -- "a brief political tome by people who are well known through TV journalism" but now seem to have mastered the form. And he said the success of "Living History," which surprised many in the book industry, "shows that there's a big audience out there for progressive titles."
But those in the political world see the bestseller list as reflective of a deeper shift in public appetites. Pushed to the sidelines of political dialogue by the "triangulation" of the Clinton years, and lacking a political platform, liberals appeared only as fodder for conservatives like Coulter. Now, some see the surge in interest in liberal titles as evidence of the same grass-roots resurgence that has fueled former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I think Howard Dean has touched a nerve and gotten people to take a look at the direction the conservatives have taken the country," said Michael Corgan, a history professor at Boston University, referencing Dean's emphasis on job losses and problems in Iraq. "I think people are trying to find ways they can respond to this."
As of last May, the top 44 radio stations of 50,000 watts and above owned by the five largest ownership groups carried 312 hours of nationally syndicated conservative talk and five hours of nationally syndicated liberal talk, according to statistics quoted at a Senate hearing.
Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch said it was all a matter of ratings: "Apparently conservative talk is more popular."
The preference for conservative opinion also has been validated in the television ratings, in which Fox News leads other news channels, and on the Times bestseller list, which surveys 4,000 stores plus wholesalers covering 50,000 other outlets, from supermarkets to newsstands.
But for booksellers like Carla Cohen, of Washington's Politics and Prose, a store that specializes in political books of all types, a change has become noticeable in recent weeks. Franken got a lot of attention out of Fox News' much-ridiculed lawsuit against him for trademark infringement over the book's title.
But, Cohen points out, neither Conason nor his book about purported right-wing lies has gotten much hype at all -- and it's still at number 8.
"It's the subject that's selling," she said.
Both Cohen and Charlotte Abbot, Book News editor at Publishers Weekly, said selling trends will become clearer later this year, when new books by conservative journalists Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson, and Bernard Goldberg match up against new books by liberal firebrands Molly Ivins and Moore. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham takes on Barbra Streisand and other celebrity liberals in "Shut Up and Sing," while more contemplative readers can choose new memoirs from Madeleine Albright and Barbara Bush.
"The right gets very motivated about supporting books that fire them up, like Bill O'Reilly's," Cohen said. "But Al Franken, Jim Hightower, and Michael Moore -- those are people who can fire up the troops, as well."
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