They have a hard time predicting because they don't see many precedents in recent elections. Even in publishing, where political books have a long tradition, experts find it hard to recall when the amount of books and sales were so high.
"People have had to go all the way back to Watergate when I've asked them," says Charlotte Abbott, book news editor for Publisher's Weekly. "We're looking at a benchmark period here for political books. … The general sense of the industry is there's a dialogue going on in the country right now, a very vociferous one, and that's very good for books."
Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who has written about the media's impact on presidential elections, looks farther back for this level of political activism in the media — to the Vietnam-charged heyday of Laugh In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That era's activists had an impact, but their message differed.
"There was lots of stuff like this floating around [in the 1960s], but the target was not really one party or the other, but the political establishment," Patterson says. "A lot of the music was very anti-establishment. It was just flat-out, poke-'em-in-the-eye stuff."
Now, Patterson adds, President Bush and the Iraq war seem to be the target of activist performers, just as President Clinton once was.
"[Conservative talk radio star Rush] Limbaugh didn't really start to get his numbers until he could really day after day go after Bill Clinton," Patterson says. "The Republican win in 2000 … then gave an opportunity for Democrats. And I think it always resonates better with the public when you're hitting at those in power."
The conservative titans from prior campaigns remain active: Fox News Channel outpaces its competitors. And Limbaugh and fellow conservative Sean Hannity remain the most-listened-to talk radio hosts, according to Talkers magazine. Smaller but significant audiences tune in to liberal hosts, including Al Franken and his cohorts on the new radio network Air America.
The conservative-liberal dynamic also fuels book publishing, where Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble Inc., believes the hotly contested presidential election of 2000, the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001, and rapid media cycles have helped make this a landmark election cycle for political books.
Wietrak sees a roughly even split between liberal and conservative books, though Democrat-leaning titles — including My Life by Bill Clinton, Bushworld by Maureen Dowd, Losing America by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank — currently outnumber Republican-leaning ones — such as Unfit for Command by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, and Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man by David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke — on the New York Times' non-fiction bestseller lists.
The current imbalance may reflect the cyclical dynamics of the publishing business, where liberal, conservative or more analytical political books succeed in waves, observers say. Conservative iconoclasts such as Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have surged in the past, they say, before liberal counterparts found big success with similar formats. Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to prompt conservative books, says Abbott of Publisher's Weekly, and then the Democratic primary season seemed to boost liberals.