Stuart Elliott: Flap Over "Fire and Fury" Echoes Another Book Decades Ago

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
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The frenzied response to Michael Wolff's tell-all book "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" offers a fascinating case study of how to market a product.

First and foremost, "Fire and Fury" demonstrates that the forbidden-fruit strategy still works.  Though neither Wolff nor his publisher, Henry Holt, is proclaiming, "It's the book Donald Trump doesn't want you to read," that phrase is lodged in almost everyone's mind thanks to the scorched-earth attacks by Trump and his surrogates against the book and its author.

Trump's frantic tweets against "Fire and Fury," coupled with the assaults by minions such as Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka and Anthony Scaramucci, are incendiary enough on their own.  But when his lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to try and halt publication it was "Look out, best-seller list, here comes Wolff."  And indeed, the book now is sold out across the country; on Meet the Press, the New York Times journalist and author Mark Leibovich asked, only half-kiddingly, "Is it possible to go any higher than No. 1 on Amazon if you're going to write a book?  I mean, this is just, it's incredible."

Trumpworld's offensive against "Fire and Fury" is more consequential than previous campaigns against media output by organizations such as the Parents Television Council or the National Legion of Decency, condemning TV shows or movies.  Trump may not realize that what he's seeking falls under the category of presidential prior restraint, which is unconstitutional -- a fact we're being reminded of these days by the movie about the Pentagon Papers, The Post.

Speaking of which, how long will it be before a promotional team at 21st Century Fox makes hay over a request from the Trump administration to screen The Post?  (That sounds like an entry from one of my fanciful "20 Questions" columns, but like so many other actual events these days, it's stranger than fiction.)

The forbidden-fruitful publicity bonanza that has benefited "Fire and Fury" reminds me of the fiery fury over another book about an occupant of the White House, "The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963."  That book, written by the historian William Manchester, became a runaway hit after Jacqueline Kennedy, who had asked Manchester to write the book about her assassinated husband, sought to prevent publication unless he agreed to make her proposed changes in the manuscript.

The battle was the subject of front-page headlines ("Bitter New Row on Book," the New York Post blared) in late 1966 and early 1967, and Manchester, like Wolff decades later, appeared on Meet the Press.  Mrs. Kennedy, her image dented by the dispute, decided to settle out of court with Manchester, who acceded to some revisions.

An early beneficiary of the publicity was Look magazine, which had paid $665,000 for serial rights to publish excerpts from "The Death of a President."  It was difficult to find the four issues with those excerpts; newsstand sales soared from their regular level, 500,000, to 2 million.  Look's publisher, Thomas R. Shepard Jr., calculated that average readership hit 53 million -- a record audience at the time for any magazine or television series.

And when "The Death of a President" came out in book form, in spring 1967, it quickly attained best-seller status, moving 600,000 copies in the first two months and more than a million copies by the summer.

It will be fascinating to see how, in an era of screens, "Fire and Fury" will compare sales-wise, but it's a safe bet to speculate that -- and it's hard to believe I'm writing this sentence -- Trump will end up walking in Mrs. Kennedy's footsteps.  She "succeeded in publicizing the very things she did not want publicized," the author Cleveland Amory wrote after the legal contretemps was resolved, "far beyond any publicity they would ever have had if she had not sued."

It's tantalizing to wonder if Wolff learned any of the tricks of the product-marketing trade during his year as editorial director of the trade publication Adweek and adweek.com.  Asked on Today if the pre-publication publicity is helping the book, Wolff puckishly replied, "Where do I send the box of chocolates?"

Not only is Trump selling books, Wolff added, his reactions are "helping me prove the point of the book."

Wolff's tenure at Adweek, in 2010-11, was controversial, as so many of his stints in the Manhattan media landscape have been, and ended amid some acrimony.  But as Wolff often has done, he subsequently landed on his feet, writing for publications such as USA Today and The Hollywood Reporter before deciding to tackle the Trump White House in "Fire and Fury."

Cleverly, even the title of the book is a reminder of another way to peddle products, known as borrowed interest.  Just as marketers seek to capitalize on interest in major news events to generate attention for their ads, "Fire and fury" was a phrase uttered by Trump himself, a threat he made in August of what would await North Korea if it endangered the United States.

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