In Banner Election Year, a Dearth of Books

Salon’s Washington bureau chief, Walter Shapiro, wrote a book about the last presidential election, but he was done reporting on it before the thing had even properly started, and the book, titled One-Car Caravan, came out just as primary season was getting under way. Mr. Shapiro said he did it this way because he wanted to get something out there before everyone found out how the story was going to end—and because he thought it would be his only shot at any real access to the candidates. By the time Iowa rolled around, he predicted, they’d all be insulated by press secretaries and aides, guarded carefully and expertly from the journalists trying to cover them. No good book could come of such conditions, Mr. Shapiro figured, and so he came in to work early.

“I start the book with myself in a car with an aide and Howard Dean for six hours,” Mr. Shapiro said. “You couldn’t get that eight months later.”

You might say One-Car Caravan was a campaign book written for a world that has forced campaign books into extinction. And it’s not just access that’s the problem, either: The once-proud genre—remember The Boys on the Bus? The Making of the President?—has also been deflated by the Internet, which allows bloggers and Web journalists to spend infinite column inches dissecting campaigns at a level of detail that could once be found only in books.

As a result, there’s just not much of a market for campaign books. As Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal put it in an e-mail: “Who wants a book on the campaign when you get the story cheaper and in real time in magazines and on The Web?”

Mr. Shapiro, for his part, said he feels “defeated by the genre,” and he is not planning to write a book about 2008. Neither are most of his colleagues in the campaign press corps. Newsweek is doing one, as they have since 1984, with reporters filing from the trail and assistant managing editor Evan Thomas putting it all together. But besides that effort, which will arrive in 2009, the only journalists reporting on the campaign with the intention of turning their notes into a book post-election are Daniel Balz of The Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson, who are working together on a volume that will be published by Viking in 2009.

“This is such a rich campaign,” Mr. Balz said. “I’m confident that there’s going to be good stuff that we will be able to tell once it’s all over, even as we’re telling it in as much detail as we can day by day. This is an unusually interesting campaign, worthy of a historical narrative in a way that some elections might not have been.”

You’d think more ambitious young writers would be trying to write books about it, then—after all, isn’t that what ambitious young writers are supposed to do these days?

As it happens, 33-year-old Ryan Lizza, who made his name on the political beat as the White House correspondent of The New Republic, was in talks with HarperCollins to write a campaign book until he joined the staff of The New Yorker this fall and was forced to pull out of the project because it would have taken too much time away from his work for the magazine.

The man who was to edit Mr. Lizza at HarperCollins, David Hirshey, said in an e-mail that being left at the altar for New Yorker editor David Remnick had soured him on the prospect of doing a campaign book and that he was not planning on finding a replacement author.

“I’m not doing a campaign book after Remnick broke my heart and told Lizza he had to make a Sophie’s Choice,” Mr. Hirshey said. “Lizza made the right choice, but a reporter of his caliber is still where I set the bar.”

Mr. Shapiro, meanwhile, filing to Salon from the trail, is nursing a heartbreak of his own as he mourns the passing of a form he once loved.

“It’s sad,” he said. “I mean, I’m somebody who came of age on Making of the President in 1960. I could tick off for you five of the best campaign books ever, all written between 1960 and 1972. … Now the campaign book is one of these hearty genres like the western—still honored in theory but not exactly filling the bookshelves of most readers.” In Banner Election Year, a Dearth of Books