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Analysis

Michelle Obama’s Trump bump: Is nostalgia key to the historic sales of ‘Becoming’?

Americans are too polarized to agree on anything — except, apparently, the former first lady.

Former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has fun with a young fan with a fan while signing her new book, Becoming, at the Tattered Book Cover ahead of her tour event later in the evening at the Pepsi Center December 13, 2018. (PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has fun with a young fan with a fan while signing her new book, Becoming, at the Tattered Book Cover ahead of her tour event later in the evening at the Pepsi Center December 13, 2018. (PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Just days before Michelle Obama was set to arrive in Denver, Colorado, for her Becoming book tour, Tattered Cover announced that not only would the former first lady be in town — ironically, the first lady who championed healthy eating would be gracing the city’s Pepsi Center — but she would be in the Colfax shop, signing books, smiling for selfies, giving out hugs. 

Fittingly for someone who is touring the world like a rock star, her event sold out as fast as Bruce Springsteen’s did two years prior. (And, not to knock Bruce, but there were more tickets available for his Born to Run signing.) People weren’t just “thrilled,” Matthew Miller, Tattered Cover COO, told ThinkProgress by phone. They were “overcome.”

“It was really all ages, from little kids to older people who were just starstruck, really, to be able to get to see her, meet her, shake her hand. It was all very brief, but even then, it was very meaningful and touching to a lot of people.”

Becoming was the best and fastest selling book for Tattered Cover that Miller can remember, save for Harry Potter. And that trend has borne out not just nationwide but around the world, as Obama’s memoir is on track to become the best-selling memoir of all time.

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Safe to say, no one in publishing was especially surprised to see Obama’s book on the bestseller list. As Porter Anderson, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives, told ThinkProgress, “People are seized by the current political climate like we don’t ordinarily see, and that is driving readership” to non-fiction and political books in particular. Even overseas, Anderson said, readers are clamoring for books about the American political scene.

But the scale of the success is remarkable, and that particular honor — bestselling memoir of all time — is a little eyebrow-raising. Like, the best? Better than Angela’s Ashes? Better than Anne Frank’s diary?

“The word ‘bestseller’ is very fuzzy,” Jane Friedman, publishing consultant and editor of The Hot Sheet, told ThinkProgress. While other industries have hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes, say, an album going platinum, “there’s nothing like that in publishing. And there’s no way to count prior to 2001, because we didn’t have BookScan,” which is the data provider previously owned by Nielsen (of television-ratings fame) and now owned by NPD.

So in a pre-millennium world, “You’re relying on publishers’ own reports.” Even now, the process of landing on The New York Times list is, to borrow Vox’s language, “convoluted.” With Obama, “What you’re seeing right now is velocity of sales,” Friedman said. “We’re seeing that she has sold this incredible number of copies in a short amount of time.”  

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Still, there are plenty of records Becoming has shattered: It was the fastest-selling book upon launch in Barnes & Nobles’ history, for one, and Penguin Random House reported that its first-day sales, including pre-orders, represented the largest single-day sales total for any book published in 2018.

Even if you didn’t know the sales numbers, chances are you’d have a sense that Becoming was a cultural phenomenon. Because even if you aren’t reading it, you almost certainly know someone who is.

These are ostensibly post-monoculture times, in which no one is watching the same TV shows or movies or listening to the same music anymore. Save for the Bible, it’s wild to think that this many people, not just in the United States but the world over, are all reading and talking about the same book. We the People are too polarized to agree on even the most innocuous things, but somehow everyone — or a sizable segment of everyone — can agree on Michelle Obama.

Wonks come for the politics and discover a coming-of-age story, and people who are exhausted (or actively disgusted) by the state of modern politics come for a woman’s ongoing journey of self-discovery, even though they know the book’s final third will take them to the White House. “Then I think it almost becomes circular,” Anderson said. “As people talk to each other and recommend it to each other — which is the best form of advertising in the book world — what they’re saying to each other is, ‘It’s not just about politics! She’s deeper than we knew. It’s fantastic.’ They discover the depths of the personality there.”

The meta-story of Becoming’s success is how a woman who was once considered a potential campaign liability for the sin of not smiling silently enough while her husband wooed swing states is now among the most universally-beloved people in America — at the same time as her husband’s successor is among the most universally-reviled.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 28: Former First Lady Michelle Obama (R) and moderator Rachael Ray hug onstage during 'Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama' at the Frank Erwin Center on February 28, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)
AUSTIN, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 28: Former First Lady Michelle Obama (R) and moderator Rachael Ray hug onstage during 'Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama' at the Frank Erwin Center on February 28, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

“It’s remarkable how visceral and strident the reactions to the Trump administration have become,” Anderson said, citing a recent Quinnipiac poll that found 53 percent of American voters say they definitely will not vote for Trump in the 2020 general election.

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The Obama administration only ended two years ago. But under Trump, time has stretched out like a taffy pull. Every 24-hour news cycle feels like some interminable loop from which we will never escape. Becoming satisfies nostalgia that has arrived way ahead of schedule — and while it is impossible to test out this hypothetical, it seems unlikely that said nostalgia would have come on so swiftly, and so intensely, if Trump had lost the 2016 election.

Reading Becoming “makes a person who is politically aware in this climate think to themselves: what do we have like that now, that we had when we had her in the White House? And there may not be a quick answer to that,” said Anderson. “Even if you feel good about Melania Trump and feel like she’s doing everything she can as first lady in a very difficult situation, she’s not a Michelle Obama. You can’t compare them.”

He went on: “People are going to say, ‘my gosh, look at what Obama’s able to write about. Look at what a vision of America and of our values she’s able to give us. What do we have now that looks like that?’ And the answer is, not much. We are in a different world. And I think people were hungry for an answer to that.” The book provides a “service,” he said. “It reminds us of the values that we know we want to get back to.”

“People are looking for something to feel hopeful about, a safe harbor,” Friedman said. “It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dark picture for people who really believed in the Obama years, and they do wish for that again.”

Anderson’s hunch is that Obama’s book “reaches right across the audiences, across the political spectrum,” as even Republicans might be yearning for the oh-so-simpler days of, say, 2013.

“They used to talk about the Kennedys as a kind of Camelot period in hindsight,” he said. “People looked back at it as this misty gauzy time. I think the Obamas have rather quickly picked up a bit of a Camelot glow to them, even among a lot of conservatives, who are having to face the fact that what the Republican party is, is no longer conservatism, and what Trump is, is certainly not the presidential ticket that they would have expected their own party to put forward.”

“They may not be able to say this loudly, but they may be reading Michelle Obama’s book,” he added.

Though they may be doing so discreetly. “They’ll be the ones reading it on their phones and Kindles.”