Politics & Policy

Out of Nowhere: a Blogger’s Best-Seller

What's going on with How Would a Patriot Act?

There’s something interesting happening on the best-seller list these days. A new book, How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok, by the left-wing blogger Glenn Greenwald, is number one on Amazon.com’s top sellers list. It has been there for several days after having shot from somewhere in the 50,000 range to number one earlier this week–all in less than 24 hours and without the benefit of any high-profile radio and television publicity campaign. And it hasn’t even been released yet–the official publication date for How Would a Patriot Act? is May 15, 2006.

The promotional material for the book suggests that it is an indictment of George W. Bush of the sort that has become commonplace on the Left in the last few years:

Greenwald’s penetrating words should inspire a nation to defend the Constitution from a president who secretly bestowed upon himself the powers of a monarch. If we are to remain a constitutional republic, Greenwald writes, we cannot abide radical theories of executive power, which are transforming the very core of our national character, and moving us from democracy toward despotism. This is not hyperbole. This is the crisis all Americans–liberals and conservatives–now face.

Indeed, Greenwald’s blog is filled with such stuff. Nevertheless, How Would a Patriot Act? appears to have become something of a (quiet) publishing phenomenon, outperforming–at least in the early stages–other, higher-profile anti-Bush books, not to mention all the other best-sellers on the list these days. Why? No one seems to know. “We’re often caught by surprise by these,” says Tom Nissley, senior books editor for Amazon.com. Nissley points to another work, a humor book entitled The Alphabet of Manliness, that also shot up the best-seller list a few weeks ago, also without any publicity campaign. “That book was up and down in the top ten for a couple of weeks,” says Nissley, “and it’s still in the Hot 100 over a month later.”

Nissley says a book’s Amazon ranking is based on “a running 24-hour total” computed by a complex algorithm that also factors in past sales. He says he does not believe it is possible to game the system to highlight a particular book. Specifically, he says that the Amazon system is designed to overlook bulk orders for books, in which a person might order, say, 1,000 copies of a single work. “We rank by orders, not by sales,” Nissley says. “We only count orders–we count an order of 1,000 copies the same as an order of one.”

In the case of The Alphabet of Manliness, the high sales appear to stem from an aggressive e-mail campaign by the author. In the case of How Would a Patriot Act?, sales appear to be the result of word-of-mouth in the blogosphere, although the book has soared higher than books written by other, more prominent, bloggers. “This book is a pure blogosphere book,” Greenwald wrote on his website Wednesday. “The book’s ideas and arguments were developed almost exclusively as a result of writing this blog. The research was done primarily by blog readers who worked with me on the book, and I discovered many of the arguments and much of the evidence that comprise the book as a result of reading comments here as well as the posts of other bloggers.”

So far, How Would a Patriot Act? has received almost no attention in the press. Perhaps reporters just haven’t noticed, or perhaps they don’t understand what is going on. If the latter is the case, they have company at Amazon. “This is unusual,” says Tom Nissley. “We’re still figuring out how this works.”

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.