A little over two years ago, I was staying at the Anchorage Hilton in Anchorage, Alaska for the yearly Bouchercon mystery writers convention. The conference generally draws in the neighborhood of 1,200-1,500 attendees, but was an intimate 500-600 in 2007, mostly due to the time, cost and effort required of people from the lower Forty Eight to get to Anchorage.
I arrived late at night, and spent the cab ride from the airport to the hotel in awe of the state's natural beauty. Alaska is filled with picaresque mountains and landscapes I simply don't see living in Manhattan. Looking back, I wish I'd spent more time sightseeing.
The opening ceremony was held on Thursday, September 27th, 2007. After some opening remarks, we were surprised to hear that the state's Governor was in attendance to personally welcome us to Alaska. The Governor, an unknown to non-Alaskans named Sarah Palin, spoke to the packed ballroom. She was warm, witty and charismatic, and made us all feel welcome in her state. The convention's newsletter The Dead Snowman described Palin as "quiet but strong". Sarah Palin made a very good impression on us. Which is why, eleven months later, when John McCain named Sarah Palin his running mate my very first reaction was, "Wow, that's a game changer."
On Tuesday, Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue will be published with an announced first printing of 1,500,000 copies. Given that announced first printings are highly inflated, conservative (no pun intended) estimates are that about a million copies of this four-months-in-the-making memoir will hit shelves. The publication will be supported by a media blitz, including a stop on Oprah's couch, a chat with Barbara Walters, and a book tour via bus which is a pleasantly quaint notion these days.
Palin's book made me think about another political memoir whose author had come from a similar political background. This man's book was published three years ago, and, like Palin, a year prior to its publication he was an all but unknown on the national landscape. The man in question was a state senator whose only national exposure was giving the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, supporting a hardly-inspiring nominee named John Kerry. Like Sarah Palin, this man stole the show from his party's nominee, much like Palin's famous "hockey mom/pitbull" speech overshadowed John McCain's mostly meandering plea for support at the 2008 RNC.
Sarah Palin, meet your publishing soulmate: Barack Obama. Seriously. They even share the same literary agent.
I firmly believe that Barack Obama's rise to the White House would not have happened without the publication of The Audacity of Hope. With an audacious (at the time) first printing of 350,000 copies, most knew Obama's book would be big, but nobody knew how big. As massive crowds turned out at each stop, it became clear that this was no regular book tour. These were not traditional book fans showing up simply for a signature from their favorite author. Obama's book signings became events. The massive success of The Audacity of Hope proved how much passion there was for this junior Senator from Illinois.
There is no doubt that Sarah Palin's book signings will inspire much of the same passion and fervor that was on display at Obama's events. Both Obama's book and Palin's book were their publisher's respective tentpoles during the competitive holiday season, and their signings will certainly have the feel of campaign rallies rather than polite 'reading followed by Q&A'. Like Obama, Palin is not a cookie cutter politician, and whether you feel this is a good or bad thing likely depends where you fall on the left-to-right political spectrum. Both Obama and Palin grew up far, far from the Connecticut Blue Blood frat house extravaganza that was George W. Bush's upbringing, to a large extent both were raised outside the 'mainstream', and therein lies much of their respective appeal.
There have been dozens of "been there, done that" self-serving political memoirs published by politicians looking more to shine their own rep rather than share the unvarnished truth. With few exceptions, most of these memoirs have been forgettable, both in content and sales. It has only been those books whose authors had intriguing personal narratives or whose books covered salacious scandals that escaped the clutter. These are best exemplified by the success of the dueling Clinton autobiographies - and if you think either would have sold as well had they not touched on the Lewinsky scandal you're crazy. Not many politicians can land the cover of Newsweek, TIME and US Weekly. Yet both Obama and Palin have accomplished this unique trifecta.
From my perspective, Sarah Palin is better lining herself up to be a pundit (and a successful one) than a politician. Aside from the huge financial windfalls she is likely to reap on-air, there is something about her attacks on the media that feel either petty or calculating, depending on what direction her career takes. (If Katie Couric was 'badgering', how will she face Putin? Chavez? Ahmadinejad? She would be battered by these questions in a Republican primary). Both Palin and Obama have engaged in media battles that have made them feel less than presidential (Obama with Fox News, Palin with everybody except Fox News).
There is no doubt that Sarah Palin is a cultural force, but it remains to be seen whether that influence will be felt as a pundit or a politician. Which publishing phenomenon will she follow: Barack Obama or Glenn Beck? It became clear during his campaign that Barack Obama was destined to be a politician. Palin? The jury is still out.
Though their beliefs on policy and ideology are water and, well, oil, the publishing stories of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are remarkably similar. Both came to prominence with little national exposure, outshining those nominees whose campaigns they were selected to augment. Interestingly, the expectations for Palin's book are higher than they were for Obama's in 2006. Both book titles -- The Audacity of Hope and Going Rogue -- suggest bucking the norm, going against conventional wisdom and politics. But will Palin's book carry her to the pinnacle of the political landscape, as The Audacity of Hope did for Obama? Or will it simply be featured prominently on the website of her eventual show on Fox News?