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Jennifer Nix Headshot

A Tale of Two Obama Books: Why Do Progressives Still Not Get It?

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As Mr. Dickens might say: It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. And the rest of it fits, too: It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Let's do worst first, and review the life-so-far of a book that is truly the avatar of wingnut-inspired foolishness, incredulity, darkness and despair: Obama Nation by WorldNetDaily writer and swift-boating smear-lackey Jerome Corsi. This 384-page menace of malicious libel and slander was ushered onto the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists by longtime GOP hack-cum-editor Mary-Mrs.-James-Carville-Matalin, aided by bulk buys from right-wing membership groups and the Conservative Book Club, and via right-wing talk radio and Fox News Channel. It has now received nearly two straight weeks of saturation mainstream media coverage, including a front-page news story and excerpt in the Times.

The sad thing, however, is that this pathetic excuse for a book is just one more example of how the right effectively coordinates and moves their ideas (and lies) into the national discourse, while the left seems unable or unwilling to absorb the important lesson about supporting progressive books so they, too, will debut on bestseller lists, monopolize media coverage and--say it with me now: DRIVE PROGRESSIVE IDEAS INTO THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE.

Even more sad? This week, a hefty faction on the left--primarily independent booksellers (following Barnes and Noble's lead)--is actively boycotting a brave attempt to bring the book-publishing industry into the 21st century, and effectively trying to keep a progressive, pro-Obama (and fact-based) title called Obama's Challenge out of the marketplace of ideas. This is a book that Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker calls "the fruit of [American Prospect co-founder] Bob Kuttner's lifetime of engagé reporting, analysis, and advocacy," and goes on to say that the book "was written in a white-hot fever of urgent inspiration over mere months. I've been carrying around a draft manuscript for most of the week, reading it in every spare moment--on the subway, on the street, during stretches of Olympic longueur...it's riveting, brilliant, and persuasive."

The Obama's Challenge 75,000 print-run is on a crash schedule, due out September 15, from the independent, activist publishing house Chelsea Green (full disclosure, I worked as an editor/marketer for the house from 2004-2006) in an effort to help fight the smears against Obama in time for the election. The book will go from final edits to bound books in less than four weeks. With so little lead time until the book's publication date, Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin decided to try an innovative approach for building early buzz by making 2000 early copies of the book available at next week's Democratic National Convention, as part of a deal with Amazon's print-on-demand arm, BookSurge.

Baldwin says, "This election is too important to wait around for traditional publishing lead times. The book needs to come out now if it's to have a major impact."

You might think, just as the right rallies around their books to push them onto bestseller lists to monopolize the national debate, that the left might do something similar with Obama's Challenge. You would be wrong--at least so far.

Instead of receiving kudos for taking the financial risk of publishing an instant pro-Obama book, Chelsea Green is facing angry calls for regressive business tactics based on an archaic system of book distribution, and cancelled orders from booksellers large and small. These business-related, bookseller reactions are in addition to the usual apathy, which meets most progressive books upon their debut, from the very community (Democrats and progressives) that would benefit most from seeing those books sell well in the marketplace, and again, say it with me now: DRIVE PROGRESSIVE IDEAS INTO THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE.

When news of the deal broke on August 15th, independent booksellers and other online retailers were enraged about the deal with BookSurge, which has Amazon providing the 2000 early copies for the Convention, and 15,000 coupons for the book to go into Convention goody bags, redeemable at Amazon. The deal also makes the book available exclusively through BookSurge's print-on-demand (POD) service from August 25-September 15, when the formal print-run would be available in all bookstores and via other online retailers, through traditional book distribution channels.

On Monday, former indie nemesis Barnes and Noble cancelled an order for 10,000 copies of Obama's Challenge and released a statement saying, "The initial order was based on the book being available to all booksellers simultaneously -- an even playing field -- which is common practice in book publishing." Many smaller stores are following suit.

Let's first address the book industry hypocrisy and misinformation. Given the crash schedule, why should a small independent publisher be punished for making a creative deal to get early copies of a book out, so that more people can then learn about the book--and then ask for it at their local book stores or buy it online from another retailer? Without the usual lengthy lead-time, Chelsea Green had no other viable option for meeting the Convention week deadline, when the book can be presented to Democrats and progressives who will benefit from the information therein in the lead-up to the presidential election. There is "no level playing field" for progressive independent publishers, whose books are bought in ones and twos from independent booksellers, while corporate houses' offerings and dreck like the Corsi book are bought in bulk and get front-of-store, table-top display treatment. And, as PW reported:

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, said he was "disheartened" with Chelsea Green's "decision to exclude independent booksellers." He said the BookSurge/Amazon option could be copied for independents who also take advance online orders and fulfill them through POD.

Not. In fact, Baldwin did attempt to forge a deal with another (and perhaps more acceptable to independent booksellers) provider of print-on-demand services, Ingram's Lightning Source, but was told they could not meet the Convention deadline. Yesterday, I tried to find information via the indie sellers' marketing arm, Indiebound, and was told that they announced a POD service in July, but this was too late to meet the DNC deadline as well. Sure, now publishers can work with an indie POD option, but it simply was not an option for Obama's Challenge, and why should Chelsea Green be made an example of by the likes of corporate giant Barnes and Noble? This out-dated distribution system needs to be reformed, to be more nimble and flexible for instant books. We have the technology! Or, maybe we should just go back to using the plough, too?

The other problem here is that once again, a meticulously-reported and intelligent progressive book may die on the vine, from lack of progressive support, before word of it reaches the American public. On our side, we have no wingnut-welfare type support for our writers, who take the time to write and promote their work tirelessly in an effort to advance the progressive cause. Despite the odds, a precious few scratch and claw their way onto bestseller lists post-pub date, after tortuous weeks of book-touring and self-promotion, in the face of giant collective yawns from the progressive community. Most go to all this trouble, and still don't make the lists.

This, despite the right's tutelage about what works, and some strong progressive book examples of what is possible when we all work together. I know something about this, having ushered George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant onto the bestseller lists back in 2004 while at Chelsea Green, and later doing the same for Glenn Greenwald's How Would a Patriot Act? at Working Assets.

In Lakoff's case, we had nearly 40 progressive groups, and all the progressive media rally around the book, putting it on their web sites and sending out email blasts urging people to buy the book. In Greenwald's case, word of the book spread like wildfire on the progressive blogs, shooting it from obscurity to the number one spot on Amazon in one day--and keeping it there for four--which led to a spot on the Times list. These were seminal books for the progressive movement, successes that helped to make progressive ideas thrive once again in the marketplace.

Yet, despite these examples and my incessant evangelizing about what we could accomplish if progressive membership and media groups and the blogs would regularly work together to promote progressive books, we apparently prefer to watch the right manipulate the system time and time again, and get books like Corsi's splashed all over American media.

Where are our side's bulk buys for important books like The Uprising, The Real McCain and Obama's Challenge? Where is the blanket coverage from progressive media? Why don't we find ways to support our writers, so they can afford to keep advancing progressive causes? Why can't we see more wildfire, viral mentions of progressive books throughout the blogosphere? To be fair, the book salons on some of the blogs, like Firedoglake and TPM, have done a great deal to advance the cause of certain progressive books, but we have to do more in order to counter-balance right-wing radio and Fox News Channel. And the Progressive Book Club, while a necessary effort, is still to new to be making a dent.

I hate to tell you, indie booksellers, but this isn't just about business. It's about activism and defeating the right, and getting our messages and ideas out in the most effective ways possible. It's about not shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot, again. A few thousand POD copies of Obama's Challenge will lead to more people walking through your doors and asking for the book before the election. Boycotting this book is a mistake, and you know it. Instead of looking backward, find ways to advance your own innovative models and POD services with publishers and the public.

And Barnes and Noble? You're not fooling anyone with your fake holier-than-thou act.

Why don't we all cheer when a little publisher from Vermont decides to stand up to the right-wing smear tactics against Obama, with a bold and innovative publishing plan? Why don't we all resolve to buy copies of the book and push a pro-Obama book onto the bestseller lists--and help to push the Corsi menace into oblivion?

Hey, now. Wait a minute. We can do this. Together.