By Mark Guarino
For fans of late night political comedy, this is a very bad year. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, the twin pillars of the genre, are vacating the hosting chair of their respective Comedy Central shows — Colbert to CBS where he takes control of David Letterman‘s former slot and Stewart to new creative pastures suggested by the recent film drama he directed during a summer hiatus of his show.
Both became towering figures known for shrewd commentary that revealed the absurdities and contradictions inside the national political arena. Both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” soon represented a legitimate news source for younger people who didn’t have the time or the inclination for deep dives into the headlines of the day.
While the absence of these shows will surely force new nocturnal viewing habits, it will also have a residual effect on the publishing industry. In recent years, both shows devoted significant airtime to new books and their authors — more than any other daily program on television. Publishers say table time with Colbert or a desk interview with Stewart were reliable for boosting sales and generating buzz and residual media attention — and not just for surefire titles but especially for the more esoteric ones.
“There’s going to be a big hole left when they’re gone,” says Lissa Warren, senior director of publicity for Da Capo Press in Boston. “Whether there will be other people in those exact same time slots that will treat books and authors the same way remains to be seen. But there’s not another show I can point to that did the same thing for books that those shows did.”
There was a time most shows were like this. It only takes a few minutes browsing YouTube to discover a time when serious writers (and some not-so-serious ones) were familiar faces on late night television: There’s Norman Mailer andGore Vidal verbally boxing on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1971, Carl Sandburg as the mystery guest on “What’s My Line?” in 1960, and even Erma Bombeck on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1977.
That changed with the rise of cable television and, most recently, streaming media that presented more choice for viewers, but also intensified the fight for more eyeballs. Gradually, authors with new books to hawk vanished from late-night couches, replaced by the widening pool of quick-hit celebrity choices — from reality and Internet stars to athletes and politicians. Books were ushered largely to the confines of public radio and television. Oprah‘s Book Club notwithstanding, blockbuster media opportunities for authors have faded away.
Which made Colbert and Stewart lifelines for the publishing industry. Not only did both hosts make time for lengthy book segments, but they were also willing to invite to their shows authors considered too arcane for a commercial audience. Case in point: Warren says she remembers Colbert inviting her author Brian Cox, a British particle physicist, to his show to discuss his book “Why Does E=mc²?” The interview went so well — Cox and the comedian discussed the Higgs boson particle — that sales for the book boomed and Warren suddenly found herself fielding a flood of media requests that otherwise may not have happened for a book of its nature.
For her, the cluttered media landscape may create more opportunities, but without one or two media powerhouses like Colbert and Stewart, the impact on sales is generally minimal.
“(W)ith so much clutter, it’s hard to make anyone snap into one direction of any one book,” she says.
The number of book titles featured by each show has been considerable, sometimes several in one week. According to data compiled by Kate Trgovac, a marketing consultant based in Vancouver who started tracking books on dailyshowbooklist.com and colbertreportbooklist.com, Stewart and Colbert featured more than 50 books on their shows last year.
An avid reader, Trgovac says she discovered that she was reading about six books a year she discovered from both shows. After noticing that the websites for both shows were short on information on guest authors, she created her own portals for fans to keep track of books that triggered their interest, archiving every book Stewart or Colbert featured on their shows since 2010.
She says that what made both shows perfect showcases for books were both the length of the segments and the variety of titles, from history to politics to celebrity, that challenged her expectations of what she might like to pick up and read.
“They are my primary recommendation center for books besides friends,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to my reading life now.”