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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

In the Right
A Conservative Editor's Radical Strategy

By Laura Shin

As the book industry struggles, editor Harry Crocker cranks out bestsellers at Regnery.

Conservative editor Harry Crocker, Muir '83, has published several recent polarizing books, including Dinesh D'Souza's The Roots of Obama's Rage.

Harry Crocker is an amiable father of six who likes old Hollywood films, comedies and playing football with his sons. With his quick laugh and polo-shirt-jeans-and-cowboy-boots look, he seems like an unlikely actor in some of the most talked-about political controversies of the last decade. Crocker, Muir '83, is the editor behind several recent polarizing books, including the infamous Swift Boat book, Unfit for Command, and last summer's must-read (or must read-about), Dinesh D'Souza's The Roots of Obama's Rage, which claims that President Barack Obama inherited an anti-colonialist rage from his Kenyan father.

Whether or not these books please or anger you, they leave no doubt that Crocker, executive editor at the conservative Regnery Publishing in Washington, D.C., has an increasingly rare talent—the ability to churn out hit books.

Crocker has edited several hundred books, among which are some of the most popular conservative volumes in recent years: Bias (2002) in which former CBS journalist Bernard Goldberg wrote about "how the media distort the news;" Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption (2009) about such a culture in the Obama administration; and Unlimited Access (1996) by Gary Aldrich, in which a former FBI agent dished about the time he spent working as security for President Bill Clinton. All of these books were #1 New York Times bestsellers and spent weeks on the list. Other Regnery authors include Newt Gingrich, David Limbaugh and Patrick Buchanan.

Regnery's success comes from a distinctive publishing strategy. Crocker says publishers usually lose money on nine out of 10 books because they produce many titles and devote publicity only to those that take off within the first month. "But that's not the way we operate at all," says Crocker, sitting on a wrought-iron bench in his suburban Virginia backyard on a sunny day last fall. "Each of our books is a mini-business, and we push it all the way. Each book gets absolute attention, and the publicist will stay on that book for a long time." Between 2007 and 2010, 24 percent of Regnery books were New York Times bestsellers, which Crocker says is the highest percentage in publishing.

Regnery's strategy, says Crocker, is to publish books that their target audience will think it must have to be part of the conversation. Regnery, which employs two editors and two managing editors in addition to Crocker, makes sure the book has some hot news that can be used as good bullet points for the book jacket and the media. Then, they promote the book through talk radio—a strategy they developed in 1988 with Leo Damore's Senatorial Privilege, about the late Senator Edward Kennedy's involvement in the Chappaquiddick car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. "That book got shut out by the mainstream media," says Crocker. "And so what we did out of desperation was market it through talk radio, which was much smaller back then but still all over the country. Talk radio has since obviously become ginormous, but no one has ever caught up with how aggressively we do that, how successfully we do that, and how doggedly we do that."

Even as an undergraduate at UC San Diego, where he studied English and American Literature, Crocker stirred up controversy. He helped found the University's conservative student newspaper, The California Review, when, he says, liberals had full reign of the UCSD campus politically and journalistically. Stacks of The California Review were routinely trashed and their office was spray-painted "Killers for Reagan." Even as The California Review found itself embattled, conservative college newspapers were mushrooming across the country, something that was reflected in 1984 when Reagan won the college vote by a large margin. Crocker found like-minded thinkers among this burgeoning national conservative scene. He formed fast friendships with editors at sister paper The Dartmouth Review, including D'Souza and conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, both of whom he publishes today. D'Souza says of Crocker from this time, "Harry was mischievous, wry and a very witty writer."

Crocker started his career with a plum job: editorial writer for The San Diego Union. Of the fact that the paper asked a 23-year-old kid to "pontificate" on everything from local to international politics, Crocker says, "It taught me—if nothing else—the great irresponsibility of the press." After he obtained a Master's in international relations through the University of Southern California's London program in 1986, D'Souza called Crocker to say that Alfred Regnery was taking over Regnery Publishing from his father, founder Henry, and needed an editor. Crocker signed on. Regnery already had a reputation for publishing serious conservative books such as William F. Buckley, Jr.'s God and Man at Yale. "Al's idea was to maintain the high-mindedness but make money at it," says Crocker. Shortly thereafter, in 1988, they published Senatorial Privilege, but ironically, Regnery lost money on the bestseller because its distributor went bankrupt. Still, Crocker recalls the time he and Al ran the company together from one room as an entrepreneurial, fun time—"sort of a bohemian Tory atmosphere."

Crocker left Regnery for four years, during which time he worked as a speechwriter for California Governor Pete Wilson, married Sally Maricle, Revelle '87, and moved to the English seaside town of Torquay to write his first novel, The Old Limey (Regnery). It was a comedy about a reactionary retired British general who goes to Southern California to rescue his missing goddaughter, and was subsequently selected for Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program. [Since then, Crocker has written four other books, including Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage and Vision (Three Rivers Press) and Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History (Three Rivers Press).] After returning from England in 1995, Crocker began producing hits for Regnery, starting with Aldrich's Unlimited Access, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks.

In an age when conservatism is split between its intellectual and talk-radio sides, Regnery maintains a "big-tent" position that appeals to both. For instance, Crocker, who likes to pitch book ideas directly to authors, is extremely proud of America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It by Mark Steyn, which claims that the world is becoming post-Christian as Islam becomes more dominant, but that America alone can reverse the trend. This book, which he says stands with other intellectually minded books, also did well with "the Fox News audience, for lack of a better word."

Regnery's success has gotten the big New York publishing houses scrambling after it. Several have poached Regnery editors and ordered them to "start mini-Regneries." But Crocker says they don't succeed, "because they're faking it. They don't know who these people are. They often guess so they don't position the books properly." Knowing its audience has allowed Regnery to avoid the layoffs suffered by the publishing industry during the recession.

However, Crocker says that recent ups and downs in the conservative movement have affected Regnery. The Clinton years were good: "Clinton made good copy." The Bush years: "Bush was such a divisive figure among conservatives that it wasn't a very good time to be publishing books. People were completely depressed." The Obama years: "With Obama we haven't had scandals of the tawdry sort. When something is really serious, your first impulse might not be to buy a book about it. With the economy as bad as it is, and a lot of people on our side thinking that the government has grown so big that you have this dangerous Leviathan looming, people who might have bought books during the Clinton years about his peccadilloes and misdoings won't be buying a book about this stuff now. They might be more activist." The Tea Party: "Tea Partiers don't buy books about the Tea Party. We've approached [the phenomenon] by staying with our game and publishing books that we think are going to break news or are going to get buzz through some paradigmatic take on things, like Dinesh's book."

While Crocker sees Regnery's books as part of a tradition of ideas, he is also keenly aware of their real-world impact. He proudly recounts the time when a Regnery book, Red Horizons by Ion Mihai Pacepa, Romania's head of foreign intelligence, was broadcast in Romania on Radio Free Europe; it is said to have inspired the street revolution that brought down Nicolae Ceauçescu's Communist regime. As for Unfit for Command, Crocker believes that it was in the nation's vital interest to publish that book, because it was "very telling" about John Kerry's character. In an e-mail, he said: "[Author] John O'Neill and the veterans he represented were incensed at the hypocrisy of John Kerry campaigning on his service record when their burning memory of him was his falsely accusing his fellow veterans (including in Congressional testimony) of being routinely involved in heinous war crimes."

As much as the books Crocker edits plunge into the political fray, he prefers to concern himself with other things. Crocker, an Anglophile whose favorite reading includes Evelyn Waugh novels, Rudyard Kipling's poetry and the comedic series of historical Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser, calls himself "an old media guy" and does not watch Fox News or listen to talk radio. "I think that a proper conservative disposition is to be anti-political. I do not have an activist mentality. The greatest conservative thinkers have always thought of conservatism as that—as a disposition. As a preference for the tried and true." He says he only engages politically because of the pressing nature of contemporary issues. "Today's news is not necessarily an eternal thing, and it's the eternal things that really matter. Much more so than the books I edit or write."

Laura Shin is a freelance writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.