Bill O'Reilly: Fox News Ouster Could Imperil Book Sales

Publisher Henry Holt is sticking with the former host for now, but a publishing expert sees potential vulnerabilities that could kill his steady stream of best-sellers.
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For years Bill O'Reilly has been a force in publishing, with every one of his Killing books selling more than 1 million copies. His dismissal from Fox News today because of allegations that he sexually harassed women might not immediately hurt book sales, but trouble could arise, says an expert who follows the book market.

Peter Hildick-Smith, who runs book audience research firm Codex Group, says casual fans and female readers could be turned off by the allegations. In addition, Hildick-Smith says the loss of visibility from the O'Reilly Factor will hurt his ability to promote his books. And the scandal could impact sales of his books aimed at the young adult and children's audiences.

O'Reilly is one of the most successful, perhaps the most successful, nonfiction authors in America today. Going back to the late 1990s, he's been the author or co-author of some 28 books. But he really became a publishing force with 2011's Killing Lincoln, which has sold more than 2.2 million books in print and audio and spawned an entire Killing series (Killing Kennedy, Killing JesusKilling Patton, Killing ReaganKilling the Rising Sun). All six of the Killing books have sold over 1 million copies each (and four of the six sold over 1.5 million copies each). Those sales outpace O'Reilly's more overtly political books, such as the just released Old School, which sold 67,500 copies its first week in late March and 41,300 in its second week. Still it was the top-selling book in the U.S. in its second week according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 85 percent of sales (and, as with movies, a 50 percent drop from the first week to the second isn't unusual). By comparison, Killing the Rising Sun sold about 250,000 copies its first week on sale in September. Sales like that are why publisher Henry Holt has mostly declined to comment on the sexual harassment allegations against O'Reilly, and after he was let go by Fox, a Holt spokesperson simply said, "Our plans have not changed."

But Hildick-Smith warns that there's potential vulnerability ahead for O'Reilly's sales, saying Old School and other "badge books" (so called because they are bought more to show a reader's political leanings than to be read) might get a bump.

Says Hildick-Smith, "With the incredible amount of discussion around his situation, I think Old School, which certainly sounds like a badge book, would get a tailwind" in sales as hard-core fans buy the book to show support for the former Fox News host. That bump might not carry over to his bigger Killing audience. Codex research shows that 81 percent of O'Reilly's badge book audience describe themselves as conservative. But just 68 percent of the Killing audience label themselves as conservative.

Hildick-Smith believes women readers are another potential vulnerability in O'Reilly's audience. Just 63 percent of female Killing readers describe themselves as conservative. And even among the conservative female readers, 37 percent are interested in books about women's rights, suggesting they might be turned off by the sexual harassment allegations.

Hildick-Smith adds that the end of the powerful O'Reilly Factor platform is likely to depress sales. The TV show drew nearly 4 million viewers a night, and O'Reilly used it to promote his books. In an era when simply getting readers aware of books — discoverability, in publishing parlance — is a major hurdle, the loss of the show is likely to contribute to reduced sales.

O'Reilly also faces potential problems with his books for children and young adults. Take, for example, his recently published Give Please a Chance (co-written with James Patterson), a book about behaving well and learning manners aimed at 3-6 year olds that sold almost 170,000 copies between its Nov. 21 release and the end of the year. Hildick-Smith thinks parents might not want to use an alleged sexual harasser as a role model for their kids.

A survey of a dozen children's book stores around the country found most were either not currently stocking it or had no plans to stock it in the future. (A rep for James Patterson did not respond to a request for comment on O'Reilly or whether there were any plans to withdraw the book in light of the scandal). Less clear is how O'Reilly's line of YA adaptations of his Killing series, which have sold around 1 million copies, will fare.

In the short run, with Old School, a badge book, out front, Bill O'Reilly's book sales appear safe. But come May with the release of Legends & Lies: The Civil War (a companion to his TV show of the same name), June with the release of the YA adaptation of Killing the Rising Sun or the fall with the expected release of his next Killing book for adults, cracks could begin to show in the O'Reilly publishing juggernaut.

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