Friday, December 17, 2010

The remainder of the day

If you lived in Manhattan during the 80’s and 90’s, the street vendor was an inescapable fact of the street life that animated a then-unruly city. These al fresco entrepreneurs erected card tables at various high-traffic locations, such as outside the Hotel Pennsylvania, across the street from Madison Square Garden; or very near Penn Station or Grand Central Station — the better to catch commuters looking for a last-minute gift, an amusement, or something to read on the ride home.

Often as not, their tables were crowded with books, hardcover and paperback, mysteries, romances, how-to books — the remaindered castoffs from a publishing industry then still on top of the world, the books that didn’t sell well enough for long enough to hold down a shelf at Doubleday or Barnes & Noble.

City ordinances have certainly changed over the years; the street vendors have probably been ushered into NYC history. But if any of them are still around, copies of the latest book by the political personality Sarah Palin are likely to soon be piled high on their tables at steeply discounted prices. And just in time for the holidays.

According to Nielsen BookScan, the firm that monitors U.S. book sales, Palin’s “America by Heart,” her collection of "reflections on family, faith and flag,” has declined in sales since its Nov. 23 debut, selling just 108,580 copies in its first two weeks. The publisher, HarperCollins, ordered an initial print run of1 million copies and has reportedly not ordered a second printing.

Sales went from 51,000 copies the week of Dec. 5 to 36,000 copies a week later, according to BookScan.

Her first book, “Going Rogue: An American Life,” had moved 667,000 copies two weeks after publication. “Going Rogue” went on to sell 2.2 million copies, according to publisher HarperCollins.

Today on amazon.com, the new book is a very respectable #39 in overall book sales, and #2 in books on politics.

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There’s a tale to be told in reader reaction. At amazon, there are about as many 1-star ratings as there are 5-star ratings, with most of the other ratings trending below 4 stars. The average for all reviews is 3 stars.

Other amazon reader reactions are more specific. “Condescending; doesn't raise level of discourse or present new ideas,” says flyingest, a sixth-grade teacher in Los Gatos, Calif.

Trisha E. Lisk of Hemet, Calif., would beg to differ: “I found the book warm, intelligent, and light years more experienced in the public governing venue (than some we know), simply brimming over with common sense, courage and self discipline. Good on you Governor.”

Not so for R. Marquis of Massachusetts: “The book is nothing but a sales pitch for one of the most brain dead politicians in the history of the United States.”

And madriver in Franklin, Mass., raised issues that, stylistic and intellectual considerations aside, could be more concerning:

“I checked out a source she mentioned a few times - the book WE STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Matthew Spalding - and saw a lot of commonality, including the de Tocqueville and Coolidge and Witherspoon references. Now it seems apparent (to me) that she read and relied heavily on Spalding's book, adding those folksy touches that her fan base loves. They won't question her originality, anyway (but Spalding should).”

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It’s impossible to know why this five-spiral crash of a sophomore literary effort happened so quickly.

The Washington Post reported Thursday on some thinking making the rounds: “One theory within the publishing industry is that Palin is overexposed, at least in terms of drawing readers.

“Palin's first book, published only a year ago, sold well enough to sate Palin's supporters, enemies and the merely curious. It was such a strong seller in hardcover that it crowded out demand for the book in paperback and for the sequel of sorts [“America by Heart”], some in the industry say.”

Of course, nobody reads like they used to in years past; “America by Heart” may be, like the publishing industry itself, the casualty of a society smitten with video games, YouTube and a multitude of other visual distractions.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it’s just as likely that, after two years of relentless exposure, Sarah Palin has finally hit the wall of media saturation, reached the point at which her ubiquity crosses from asset to liability. Since her jaw-dropping ascension to the national stage in the doomed McCain presidential campaign in 2008, Palin has become a Rashomon personality, one individual viewed and interpreted through the public’s multiple prisms.

It’s all come so fast. Palin published the first book, last year; then the lecture circuit beckoned, profitably. Then she landed an analyst’s gig at Fox News. Then she secured a prime-time miniseries on the Discovery Channel. And now we get a second book. (And let’s not forget Palin’s adventures in Haiti, a trip to the earthquake-stricken country for just long enough to put in face time in a global hot zone, dutifully recorded by a crew from Fox News.)

All of it done, of course, with a mind to burnishing her reputation as political king- or queen-maker, and cultivating the punditburo’s handicapping of the 2012 presidential race — and whether she will or won’t be in it.

No matter. Palin’s new and soon-to-be-remaindered book and its plunge in sales suggest she’s on the verge of violating one of the fundamental laws of popular culture: At some indeterminate point, the benefit of media exposure becomes inversely proportional to the amount of that exposure. Put another way: Getting too big too soon and for too long has a way of being too much. You undermine your credibility and your popular appeal if we don’t get to miss you, and we can’t get to miss you if you never go away.

Image credits: Sarah Palin I and II: Harper Collins. Sarah Palin III: Via The Huffington Post. Sarah Palin IV: Gerald Herbert/Associated Press. Sarah Palin V: Fox News.

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