What Scott Walker’s Dismal Book Sales Say About His Political Future

Mar. 25, 2014
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 Right-wing rock star Gov. Scott Walker has sold a shockingly few 16,000 copies of Unintimidated, his “insider’s view” of his public union busting. Sorry—"a governor's story and a nation's challenge."

Turns out that Walker is a bad investment and his presidential backers should be worried. Maybe he can deliver for them in Wisconsin—where his only meaningful opposition comes from members of his own party, thanks to gerrymandering—but his book sales show that he has a lot to prove nationally.

Let’s start with the financial stuff. Buzzfeed reported that Walker’s advance was at least $340,000. Walker didn’t pocket all of that, of course.

Agents usually earn 15% right off the top; in this case, $51,000. Celebrity writers can set up various types of pay structures with their co-writer (Marc Thiessen) or ghost-writer. It could have been a work for hire, with a set amount of pay for Thiessen; a percentage of the advance; a fee for writing the proposal plus a certain amount for writing the book; or a percentage of the advance or set fee plus a percentage of royalties once the advance earns out.

(A bit of self-disclosure here: I had a fairly long career in publishing prior to joining the Shepherd. I started as an assistant literary agent in New York, then worked various jobs within publishing, including co-authoring three books, ghost writing others, editing, book doctoring, marketing, book proposal coaching and more. So I know a bit about publishing from all angles.)

Let’s say that Walker and his coauthor, Marc Thiessen, split what remained after the agent’s cut, which leaves $144,500 for each man. Walker and Thiessen could have developed a different compensation structure, of course. We’ll never know, but I’ll assume that Thiessen, a big name in right-wing circles who likely raised Walker’s profile with publishers, pocketed six figures.

Moving beyond the book deal to the actual book, which I read—at least, I’ve read as much as I could stomach—just the concept of Unintimidated should have given publishers pause. And Walker’s crappy book sales could have been predicted from the outset:

  • Walker doesn’t have a profile outside of Wisconsin. It would be interesting to find out the location of Walker’s readers. I’m going to assume that 90% of them are local. Although local media and residents are consumed with anything to do with the guy, he barely registers outside of the state (except with his billionaire benefactors). Think about recent straw polls among conservatives: Walker generates barely a blip. Even though he’s a regular on Fox, Walker’s “charisma-free” persona just doesn’t make anyone want to know anything more about him.
  • Walker doesn’t have a compelling personal story. Think about some of the most successful political bios—Obama’s Dreams From My Father comes to mind. Now, that book wasn’t political. It was utterly personal. I learned a ton about Obama from that book, and was hooked by how unique he really is. Now, think about Walker. What do you know about the guy? He’s married with two sons. He’s worked in government his whole life (although he really blows out of proportion his experience at IBM, which amounted to selling computer warranties for a very brief period of time). He’s an Eagle Scout. He worships Ronald Reagan. And that’s it. Unintimidated sheds no new light on his story. There’s no there, there.
  • Walker doesn’t understand the private sector. Funny how news of his dismal book sales—his one attempt to dip his toe into the private sector after decades of living on the taxpayers’ dime—comes on the heels of yet another dismal jobs report. Walker just doesn’t get what sells, what makes something attractive to a consumer or investor. He only understands government. And only from a limited perspective.
  • The Act 10 battle has already been reported—ad nauseam. It blanketed the local and national airwaves, juiced the blogs, and was all over talk radio. Walker shed no new light on the battle over his most controversial bill. And the little bit of new information he did manage to reveal wasn’t all that interesting. I mean, he had to negotiate with GOP legislators, who were only interested in passing a “nuclear-lite” bill to destroy unions. His behind-the-scenes stories of living through incredible political strife turned out to be fabrications or just plain dull to anyone but the most serious wonks. 
  • Walker sees the world in black-and-white terms, and that sort of binary thinking just doesn’t create a compelling story. Walker may be “unintimidated,” but by whom? He didn’t have to deal with unions or Democrats, whom he smears throughout the book. He only had to (and still has to) negotiate with Republicans, who had enough numbers to pass whatever Walker wanted. Combined with really simplistic writing, Walker’s political vision is about as enlightening as a Snapple cap. (Apologies to Snapple.)
  • The title sucks. Talk about an unforced error.

Buzzfeed’s piece is about the demise of conservative book publishing, which used to boost major publishers’ bottom lines and turn small niche publishers into money machines while providing politicians with an air of gravitas (and giving them something to sell). But Walker’s book sales show that Walker isn’t much of a rock star outside of Wisconsin, Fox News studios and meet-and-greets with small-government donors. He’s going to have to radically reinvent himself if he wants to sell himself beyond Wisconsin’s borders. Who knows? Perhaps he isn’t serious about running for president—he just likes the perks that come along with pretending to run for president. And pretending to be a big-time author. 

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