Justin Frank, the walrus-mustached Washington psychiatrist, became a bestselling author in 2004 thanks to Bush on the Couch, his book-length psychoanalytic appraisal of the sitting president of the United States. A few years later, he did the same for Bush’s successor with Obama on the Couch. And in 2018, like clockwork, he brought the 45th president into his MacArthur Boulevard consulting room with Trump on the Couch.
But Joe Biden will not be getting a turn on the doctor’s virtual sofa.
“The reason is, I’m tired,” Frank says. “The book on Trump almost killed me.”
Frank might as well be speaking for the entire publishing industry, which sold tons of books about the past three presidencies but is now dealing with an equally dramatic Biden-era falloff in sales of president-centric literature.
From a mental-health professional’s point of view, Frank thinks Biden — with a life shaped by grief and resilience, those favorite topics of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts — is a fascinating subject. Yet it seems no one is beating a path to his door in search of a book on the current chief executive’s unconscious mind. “Some people have asked me about it, but I haven’t really been approached by any particular publishing house,” he says. “So I don’t think there are people who want it. And I don’t know why.”
A look at the data might help explain. Sales for even well-reviewed Biden books by respected authors have been anemic: New York magazine correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti’s buzzy book on the Biden-Obama relationship has sold just north of 1,000 hardcover copies since it dropped in September, according to numbers from Bookscan. My colleague Ben Schreckinger’s well-received, deeply reported 2021 book on the Biden family has a Bookscan number just above 4,000 in hardcover. And Associated Press reporters Darlene Superville and Julie Pace’s book on First Lady Jill Biden notched 1,867 in hardcover. (Bookscan numbers, which are considered relatively rough, measure cash-register sales, rather than units shipped by publishers; library, institutional, and bulk sales also don’t get included.)
More notable than the sales figures is the general paucity of output. Whether it’s quickie biographies of flash-in-the-pan political celebs, memoirs from campaign insiders, hate-reads from administration critics, or important works of analysis from journalists or policymakers, there’s just not much in the offing. Atlantic writer Franklin Foer has an inside account of the administration’s first two years that is due out next year, as does journalist Chris Whipple; my colleague Alex Thompson is also working on a big book that is slated for early 2024. POLITICO’s Alex Ward has a foreign policy-focused book in the works, and New York Times reporter Katie Rogers has announced a Jill Biden project of her own. There are others, but D.C. readers won’t need to rush to the nearest IKEA to buy extra bookshelves anytime soon.
That’s a big change from what Washington is used to. By this point in the Trump administration, there had already been explosive, scoopy bestsellers by the likes of Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward. By this point in the Obama administration, there was already a stack of big books by people like Dan Balz and Richard Wolffe about how the 44th president had won. By this point in the George W. Bush administration, there were already biographies of his national security adviser and defense secretary. In Bill Clinton’s first term, the new president was even the subject of a celebrated roman à clef — something it’s hard to imagine a novelist doing with Biden.
Or consider one perennial genre of Washington literature: The campaign-guru book. Within a couple years of helping steer their candidates to victory, Steve Bannon, David Plouffe, Karl Rove and James Carville had all written or been the subject of books. But when Biden took the White House in 2020, the campaign didn’t really generate salable stars. About the only inside-circle figures who scored post-campaign deals were family members: Biden’s strategist sister Valerie, his son Hunter, and his former daughter-in-law, all of whom may have wanted the payday. (Not that the royalties would have been especially grand: Valerie Biden Owens’ book has sold 8,455 hardcover copies, Hunter Biden’s 26,669, and his ex-wife Kathleen Buhle’s some 8,423, per Bookscan.)
Contrast this with psychologist Mary Trump’s 2020 tell-all about her uncle: It has sold over a million copies in hardcover alone.
Howard Yoon, a top D.C. book agent who sells lots of books by political and government figures, says part of what’s going on is that the uncertain economy has left publishers more cautious about what they’re acquiring. But that’s not the only thing. “The administration itself is kind of a black hole,” he says. Much of book interest, he says, is “personality and character-driven. And for whatever reason, [consumers have] decided that we don’t want too much of Biden’s personality.” He likens public perceptions of the cast of characters to George H.W. Bush’s “milquetoast” presidency.
The question for book agents is: Who in the current administration would they even want to pursue?
The question for the current administration is: Is that state of affairs really a bad thing?
A reasonable person could look at the thinly populated Biden-administration bookshelf and think, Mission Accomplished. After all, a lot of popular books don’t represent good news for the administration in power. Appointees write bitter tell-alls because they’ve been fired amid White House turmoil; famous-for-Washington insiders often achieve their national-celeb status by being thrust into the news by some catastrophe like 9/11; top reporters turn up backbiting and dysfunction. It’s a good bet most presidents would have been just as happy to have their first two years in office come and go without a Bob Woodward book. (“I have not decided on a future project or book at this point,” Woodward emailed me this week when I asked if he was on a Biden project.)
And Biden could also look with some satisfaction at the dearth of poison-pen books about him. Scan the list of bestsellers published by the right-wing imprint Regnery and you’ll find Obama books with titles like Culture of Corruption and The Great Destroyer. There’s nothing remotely similar for Biden. As the midterms showed, making himself a small target for the haters has its electoral benefits.
Biden, of course, ran for president on the implicit promise of being boring — of creating a country where you don’t have to think all that often about just who’s in the White House. But the problem, from that point of view, is that plenty of president-centric books are selling; they just tend to be about Biden’s predecessor-turned-wannabe-successor: Maggie Haberman’s scathing Trump biography debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, as did the somewhat critical memoir by Trump Attorney General William Barr, and the generally favorable one from Trump White House strategist Kellyanne Conway.
In recent months, books about Donald Trump’s world by journalists (Mark Leibovich; Susan Glasser and Peter Baker; Dana Milbank; and POLITICO’s Jonathan Lemire, among others), disgruntled GOP insiders (Tim Miller) and non-disgruntled Trump relations (Jared Kushner) have all spent time on the list. The current number one book is by a figure from an earlier administration, Michelle Obama. Mike Pence’s memoir spent last week at number two.
It’s no wonder why. In contrast to the big events of the Biden administration, the chaotic, violent last days of Trump’s reign are both more compelling and more important: Would you rather read a book about the politics of student loan forgiveness, or one about an attempt to criminally undo an American election? But the fact that the subject of endangered democracy remains so urgent is also a reminder that Biden, for all his big promises, hasn’t succeeded in putting it to bed — or moving the country’s popular imagination to a new place.
For people who actually do take on projects, the zigzagging reputation of the Biden administration has also been complicating. At the beginning, fans lauded a surprisingly robust policy agenda. After the fall of Kabul, his numbers tanked. Then the predictions of doom got a kick in the pants from the 2022 midterms. A good book writer should be able to integrate — or might even feel excited about synthesizing — all the various contradictions. But it’s hell on publishing house marketing departments, not to mention the book editors who have to make deals today based on what they think might sell in 18 months.
So far, agents and publishing sources say, there’s no indication of a post-midterm rush of book deals, though Foer tells me that interest in foreign rights for his forthcoming project, which had been pretty slow, suddenly picked up after predictions of a Democratic wipe-out failed to materialize. The new attention to the administration puts people who’ve already inked deals in a potentially enviable position.
From a calendar point of view, it’s likely that folks who want to publish Biden books will get some opportunities soon. The administration has had relatively little turnover, but eventually that will change and newly-underemployed people will seek book contracts and possibly be willing to take small-ball deals. The GOP-led Congress will likely create new villains via their investigations, some of whom can either be idolized or demonized in book form, depending on one’s politics. And human nature being what it is, someone will probably screw something up in a way that some enterprising author wants to cover.
Still, the emerging structure of how books get sold will likely make it tough for many of them to break through. The challenge is that for books, “centrism doesn’t sell,” says Larry Weissman, who runs a literary agency in New York but represents a number of Beltway writers. Customers want something that takes sides. But TV (where books get promoted) and the lecture circuit (which features in the financial calculations of a lot of writers) are increasingly averse to polarization. So it’s going to be a punishing sales environment for a legit journalist whose book turns up unflattering information but isn’t a hit piece (like Schreckinger’s book), and also a punishing marketing environment for authors inclined to produce unadulterated attacks or fawning celebrations.
Even the media heat that a presidential election will generate is a double-edged sword, says Weissman, noting the way a campaign environment can swallow all political books other than ones about that specific campaign. “A lot of us are trying to keep everything out of the publishing schedule for 2024,” he says. “It’s going to be a black hole that sucks everything out of the room. … You get bumped the minute someone does something stupid on the campaign.”
As for Dr. Frank, who still sees patients as an analyst in Washington, he hopes someone will take on a Biden portrait — just not him.
“Grief is the vitamin of growth and strength,” he says, explaining where he’d start with Biden. Unlike his predecessors, he says, Biden grew up with less damage. “I think he was very much loved by both of his parents. And I think that’s a huge, positive thing. Obama’s father abandoned the family when he was one and a half. And Bush’s mother was an impossible person to deal with. Trump’s mother was an impossible person and the father was a tyrant. I think that Biden came from a loving working family.”
Frank’s approach, which he calls applied psychoanalysis, involves close readings of just about everything a target has written or said. Around the time the first of his “couch” books appeared, he resigned from the American Psychiatric Association, whose “Goldwater rule” forbids members from diagnosing people they haven’t treated. He says he has no regrets.
In fact, he’s planning to use his professional training on his next idea. It’s just that, in keeping with the mood of the times, it’s not focused on the guy currently in charge: Two of the notions he’s batting around are Q on the Couch, which would deal with conspiracy theorists, and Profiles in Crazy, which would ponder the minds of various lesser characters in the insurrection orbit.