In one month Conrad Black will learn just how much jail time he's facing on the fraud and obstruction-of-justice convictions he earned in July. Meanwhile, the Canadian-born British peer has a more immediate and pleasant distraction to engage his attention, namely the U.S. publication Monday of his almost 1,200-page biography of disgraced former U.S. president Richard Nixon.
According to his New York-based publisher Susan Weinberg, of PublicAffairs Books, the biography isn't that much different, content-wise, from the hefty version that McClelland & Stewart and Quercus published in May of this year in, respectively, Canada and Britain. Indeed, the biggest change is the title, she says. The U.S. edition, which has a suggested retail price of $40 (U.S.), is called Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full whereas the two earlier volumes were both published as The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon.
Black, 63, no doubt would like to be touring in support of his biography, which PublicAffairs announced it had bought for the U.S. market last January, before the mid-March start of his trial in Chicago. Had he been cleared, Black likely would be doing some literary road work today, perhaps in Washington or New York or Nixon's home state of California. However, while his lordship is currently free on a $21-million bond, he's legally required to spend virtually all his time at his south Florida estate.
Moreover, "this was never planned as a big-tour book, before the trial or since," Weinberg asserted. After all, Black's last presidential biography, 2003's Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, sold about 50,000 copies in total in Canada and the U.S., with PublicAffairs serving as publisher in both territories. That's not bad for a hardcover that runs to 1,300 pages and sold for $54.95 (Cdn.), but hardly an incentive for PublicAffairs to plot a massive road trip for a leader much less-loved than FDR, indeed, one of the most reviled of America's 43 presidents.
Instead, the publisher hopes the Nixon will be sold largely on the strength of book reviews (the expectation being it will repeat the largely respectful critical reception it had in Canada and Britain) and "on merchandising in the stores," including significant displays in such major chains as Barnes & Noble and Borders. An advance review last month in Publishers Weekly, the bible of the U.S. book trade, is being taken as a harbinger of good things to come: it described Black as "a versatile and thorough biographer ... better positioned than most men to chronicle the power and disgrace experienced by Richard Nixon," and his book as "a vibrant narrative of personal and political accomplishment."
In the meantime, no journal, magazine or newspaper to date has bought excerpt rights - a situation Weinberg deems entirely understandable because "serialization was never part of the strategy for this book," especially since "it's already been published in two large English-language markets." Only one print ad has been bought thus far, in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, where Black's editor on both the Nixon and Roosevelt bios, William Whitworth, once served as editor. And if talking heads Bill O'Reilly, Tim Russert or Larry King are interested, none has expressed that interest to PublicAffairs - at least not yet. Again for Weinberg this is explicable: "It used to be you'd have interviews lined up two months in advance," but in today's on-demand universe, a lead time of two days is not uncommon.
Besides, "this is a serious, deep biography. It's not the kind of book [you] run out to buy on the first day," she said. "It kinda rolls out; it's not just 'pop-pop-pop.' "
Shortly after Black's conviction, PublicAffairs founder Peter Osnos said he was making "a calculated guess" that his company could "get past [the] issue" of Black's criminal record "and get people to appreciate the book on its own merits.
Whether we succeed or not, it will remain that he has written an extremely fine book."
Weinberg for her part thinks A Life in Full "is actually going to be the Nixon book of the year" and "a great gift opportunity" as the Christmas season unspools over the next two months.
One reason PublicAffairs chose to publish in late October rather than in the spring or summer is because "there were a lot of Nixon-themed books going out at that time." These included Robert Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power and Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan. "We figured we'd let those books play out in the first half of the year and we'd have the big book coming out at the end."
Meanwhile, Lord Black of Crossharbour is waiting, metaphorically and perhaps literally, by the phone in the study of his Palm Beach sanctuary. "He's happy to talk to any journalist who wants to talk about the book," Weinberg said.