The ultimate question for Penguin is whether This Town, which is currently #24 on Amazon's list of best-sellers, can be a game-changer. Or, rather, if it can be Game Change. The latter, recall, is the 2010 book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the 2008 presidential election, focusing in particular on Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, the infidelities of John Edwards and the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket.
In many ways, Game Change is the high-water mark of political journalism of the last decade. It sold an impressive 422,000 copies in hardcover alone, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks print book sales across the nation. Moreover, it was turned into an HBO film starring Ed Harris and Julianne Moore. A pretty good book became an excellent franchise – with a sequel on the way.
This Town shares many of the qualities that made Game Change a success beyond the Beltway. Neither book treats Washington with the reverence it could once expect from the press corps – yet both Liebovich and Halperin/Heilemann write with the cool knowingness of insiders, never too outraged or upset, careful not to compromise past or future sources. Most crucially, both books avoid the inside baseball and wonkiness that infect too many tomes about Washington. They almost read like movie scripts. In a good way, that is.
Liebovich himself is acutely aware of where Game Change stands in the political-book lexicon, calling it “the picture of mass-market success in a category – political books – that never produces smashes outside of [Bob] Woodward.” The opening of the film version of the book is “the marquee event of the late winter [of 2012],” according to Liebovich, who is surely hoping for a similar outcome for his own book (not without good reason).
Intending to capture as wide an audience as possible, Liebovich steers wide of wonkiness. Some reviews knocked him for it, claiming that the book is light on serious analysis. In The Wall Street Journal, for example, Andrew Ferguson wrote that the book was suffused in “triviality.”
But you can’t blame Liebovich for wanting to traffic in gossip – and rather juicy gossip, while we’re at it – about Valerie Jarrett instead of analyzing Obamacare’s tortuous path through Congress.
That’s because no matter how smart and incisive, wonkery has fared poorly as of late. Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, based on a popular series of articles on Slate about economic equality, has sold only about 7,000 copies since its 2012 publication, according to Nielsen BookScan, which covers about 85 percent of the print market but does not include e-books. Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds, about the 2012 presidential contest, is a more sober book than This Town; its sales figures, 11,000 copies, have been good but not impressive. Meanwhile, the photogenic MSNBC host Chris Hayes has sold about 22,000 copies of Twilight of the Elites, which in effect lambastes much the same culture that is Liebovich’s target, if from a different perspective. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, about congressional dysfunction, was the recipient of highly complimentary coverage and has sold a respectable 36,000 copies – a figure that would represent a disappointment for This Town.