Books and (Semi) Mass Media

Having published my book on James Madison last month (Madison’s Gift), I share one trait with most authors of a recently-released book:  A wistful desire that great chunks of the reading public will exercise their right to pay a modest sum to own my book.

This desire to sell books makes authors willing to undergo many forms of humiliation.  One is the media interview.  We do them in order to build the buzz around books on which we have just lavished a significant chunk of our time on earth.


First, my statement of principle.  I am entirely thrilled that there are gatekeepers to the American audience who are willing to allow me to yammer about James Madison from their hard-won public platforms.  Climbing onto those platforms, however, can involve risk.

Different hosts, for example, engage in different levels of preparation.  I offer a quick taxonomy:

  • Ferociously well-prepared: Brian Lamb on C-SPAN is the leading example of this method.  An interview on his Q&A program resembles a game of intellectual whack-a-mole.  His questions leap from topic to topic while he fondles your book, which he has festooned with yellow stickies and marginal notes.  Do not take Mr. Lamb for granted.
  • The staff read the book: I don’t mean this snidely.    A smart host can get a good list of questions from an underpaid but diligent staff member, riffle through the book, and conduct a very fine interview.  Hey, I’m a professional, too.  Just mention the topic and I’ll come up with something to say.  I’ll even compliment your question.  Had a great radio interview with Jim Engster in Louisiana.  I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts he didn’t read the book.  
  • “I took the book home last night”: This chilling statement by your host omits any claim that the book was opened.  Because I (mostly) write history, this usually presages a series of questions based on half-remembered high-school classes, refracted by political views acquired since.  The author should fasten his/her seatbelt; this may be a bumpy ride.
  • Stuart Varney of Varney & Company: I’ll admit it.  I had never heard of the guy or his show on Fox Business Channel, but I was tickled to be invited for a Presidents’ Day appearance.  While I waited in a remote studio in Florida to be patched in for some quality on-air Madison time, I watched the first 40 minutes of the show.  Varney & Company’s principal theme, delivered in Mr. Varney’s smooth British accent, was that Barack Obama is responsible for everything that is wrong in this galaxy, and probably all the other galaxies, too.  No big deal, I figure.  We’ll talk about Madison, right?  I herewith offer a reconstructed version of my 45 seconds on the show:
Stuart Varney: What, me worry?

Stuart Varney: What, me worry?

Host:  Welcomes me, the author of Madison’s Myth  [urgent:  Do I correct him, since the book is Madison’s Gift?  Oops, too late, he’s on his first question]:  So, as a historian, thirty years from now, what will historians make of Barack Obama?

Me:  [It’s about Madison, dudeI wrote about Madison!]  Ah, um, he’s had many challenges to deal with, two wars and a financial collapse, but the health insurance legislation will be noted as a major initiative, though that may be a controversial view on this show.

[Big mistake:  Should have ignored the question and talked about Madison.  Worse, I left the door open for the host to talk about himself and his show.  He does.  Then notices I’m still on his screen.]

Host:  So, Mr. Stewart, tell us about Jefferson.

Me:  [Can’t you tell Jefferson apart from Madison, you empty-headed limey piece of . . .?]  I speed through a 15-second summary of the book, mentioning Madison’s name several times.  Madison.  Madison.  Madison.  Breathe.  Wait for follow-up question.

Commercial Break!  Thanks for playing.

I stumble out of the studio into a lovely Florida day.  The black sedan is still waiting to take me back to the hotel.

Building the buzz.  It’s what I do.


  1. Alan E. Johnson on March 22, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Good and honest account of the realities. I empathize.

    I haven’t seen you yet on PBS’s “News Hour.” You might have better luck there. They usually have a thoughtful and extended interview of authors. And the people who watch may actually buy your book.

    For an apologetically liberal slant, you might also try John Stewart’s program, but you would only get less than five minutes, and Stewart usually tries to find some comedic angle. He was, however, unable to find any comedy in his interview of John Lewis, and his attempt to do so fell flat.

    I’ve purchased your book about Madison on Kindle but have not yet had an opportunity to read it. I’m looking forward to it!

    • Alan E. Johnson on March 22, 2015 at 9:15 am

      typo: “apologetically liberal” should be “unapolegetically liberal.” It’s too early in the morning.

  2. Alan E. Johnson on April 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    I have now read Madison’s Gift and have reviewed it on Goodreads ( and Amazon (, It is an excellent contribution to historical scholarship on Madison and other Founders.

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