- In 2020, at least 26 members of Congress cashed in on books they wrote.
- Together they collected handsome royalties and advances, an Insider analysis found.
- For a few, their pay as book authors is better than their congressional salaries.
It’s no secret that tell-all books about the Trump White House are guaranteed to grab headlines — and big paydays for their authors — thanks to their jaw-dropping revelations and anecdotes of backstabbing.
But members of Congress are also making serious money with their own literary works. A few are even making more cash from writing books than they are from writing laws while earning $174,000-a-year congressional salaries.
An Insider analysis of financial disclosures found that members of Congress together raked in $1.8 million in 2020 from book advances and royalties. The total was uncovered as part of the exhaustive Conflicted Congress project, in which Insider reviewed nearly 9,000 financial-disclosure reports for every sitting lawmaker and their top-ranking staffers.
The analysis identified at least 26 members of Congress who earned royalties or advances in 2020, with some capitalizing on a legal loophole that allows them to earn considerable income from their side hustles as authors.
The highest earner among them was Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat of Illinois who is up for reelection in 2022 and whom Joe Biden was rumored to have considered as a possible running mate before selecting then-Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Duckworth’s book, “Every Day is a Gift: A Memoir,” which came out in March, earned $382,500 in advance payouts and royalties, according to federal financial records.
The book charts Duckworth’s life, including her traumatic account of how Iraqi insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Army helicopter she was piloting, causing her to lose both her legs.
Duckworth, the first woman who uses a wheelchair to be elected to Congress, told People that she decided to write the book after her daughter Abigail asked why she was willing to lose her legs in the military, making her unable to run with her daughter “like other mommies.” Duckworth said that’s when she started collecting her thoughts to put on paper.
“I was just sort of jotting down things that I’d want to talk with her about when she got older, that would be my explanation why America is worth it,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth’s office didn’t comment on the payments, and her financial documents don’t parse out what share of the earnings were from royalties alone. Her 2019 financial disclosure cites a $302,500 advance but doesn’t spell out the terms of the book agreement. Amazon ranked “Every Day is a Gift” as No. 19 on its “U.S. Congresses, Senates & Legislative” category as of Tuesday.
‘Box you have to check’
Writing a book can help politicians tell voters about who they are as people and why they decided to run for public office.
“It’s a necessary piece of the box you have to check if you want to be a prominent political operator,” said Howard Yoon, a literary agent in Washington, DC, and principal of the Ross Yoon Agency. “You need that book under your belt. In some cases, these politicians have several.”
High-profile members of Congress rank among six-figure book earners.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and hero among many liberals, appeared to have earned $170,000 in 2020 from a contract with Penguin Random House to write a book about “the future of progressive politics in America,” according to his 2020 financial disclosure. His office didn’t reply to questions about the forthcoming book.
Sanders, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and 2020, also in 2020 continued earning smaller royalties, of $1,064.24, from two previous books he wrote. They include his 1998 memoir, “Outsider in the House” about his race for the US House, where he served for 16 years, and his more recent, 2019 autobiographical book “Outsider in the White House,” which was published when he was seeking the 2020 presidential nomination.
Sanders wrote both books alongside Stanley “Huck” Gutman, who was his chief of staff from 2009 to 2013. Beyond books, Sanders in 2020 even received $216.97 in royalties from a folk-music album, “We Shall Overcome,” that he recorded in 1987.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, received a $250,000 advance from Macmillan Publishers in 2020. The book, “Persist,” which came out in May 2021, chronicles how Warren’s personal experiences as a mother and teacher shaped her positions on issues such as universal child care and free college.
The book was the No. 7 New York Times bestseller when it came out — six slots behind “Killing the Mob,” a book cowritten by the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that also debuted that same week. Warren’s book dropped off the bestseller list the following week.
Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, received a $108,750 advance in 2020 from Simon & Schuster for her book that came out in June, “Daughter of the Heartland: My Ode to the Country That Raised Me,” her personal financial disclosures show.
Books from Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Tim Scott of South Carolina appear to have netted some of the highest royalties in 2020.
The annual disclosures for Cotton, who is making early moves toward a 2024 presidential run, say that he earned $202,500 in royalties for his 2019 book, “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery,” about the cemetery’s Army unit that honors service members. But disclosures from past years don’t detail the terms of the book deal, including what his book advance was and whether the $202,500 sum also includes advance payments.
Amazon listed Cotton’s book as No. 2,188 in its “Political Leader Biographies” category ranking and No. 343 in its “Sociology of Death” ranking as of Tuesday.
Scott’s disclosures say that his memoir, “Opportunity Knocks: How Hard Work, Community, and Business Can Improve Lives and End Poverty,” earned $85,000 in royalties but doesn’t indicate whether he still received additional advance payouts in 2020 or whether those payouts are lumped into the total. His 2019 disclosure shows he received a $42,500 advance from the publisher, Hachette Book Group, that year.
Scott’s political profile has risen since he delivered the GOP response to Biden’s joint address to Congress in April. He’s bringing in big-dollar donors who are creating buzz around his own possible 2024 presidential run, particularly if former President Donald Trump decides against running for the Republican nomination.
Rules for campaigns
Insider’s list of Congress’ highest book earners wasn’t surprising, Yoon said. Books from “someone who is a prominent fighter on one side of the aisle tend to do well,” as well as those that have a “fresh or original voice coming through,” he said.
“People want to show their support of the person by buying the book or try to gain insight into what’s happening in politics,” he said.
That insight can help a candidate politically, too. Campaigns and political committees like to sell candidates’ books for fundraising or mail them out as thank-you gifts to donors.
Tammy for Illinois, Duckworth’s campaign committee, bought the senator’s book in bulk purchases on two separate occasions this year. Federal Election Commission data shows the campaign spent more than $23,000 in all, and now the book is being sold on her campaign website for $35. The proceeds benefit Duckworth’s reelection efforts.
Benjamin Garmisa, Duckworth’s communications director, said the publisher set up a separate account for Duckworth’s book so the senator wouldn’t get any royalties from books sold through her campaign.
FEC rules say that politicians can buy and distribute their own books as long as they don’t use campaign funds to buy the books and then collect royalties on them. They generally recommend the kind of arrangement Duckworth’s campaign uses, which allows a publisher to withhold royalties from an author. The candidate can otherwise choose to give the royalties to charity.
The campaign website for Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas, offers donors an autographed copy of his book, “One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History,” in exchange for a $77 donation. “Help Keep Texas red and support the Supreme Court!” the ad reads.
The book includes Cruz’s personal recollections from the deaths of the Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and explores high-court cases decided by one-vote margin.
Cruz, who came in second behind Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, received a $319,673.67 advance in 2020 for his book, according to his annual personal financial disclosure. The book has been on Amazon’s list of bestsellers.
Steve Guest, Cruz’s spokesman, told Insider that the book resonated with readers because “Americans know just how consequential Supreme Court decisions are and how close these decisions impacting our Constitutional rights and liberties get.”
But the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group, took issue with how the Cruz campaign was marketing the senator’s book. It filed ethics complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee and the FEC accusing Cruz’s campaign of violating the law by paying up to $18,000 for Facebook ads imploring supporters to buy Cruz’s book from Amazon and other online sellers.
“There was no real way to track how many books were purchased as a result, so no way to forgo royalties,” said Brendan Fischer, federal reform director at the Campaign Legal Center.
Cruz’s team denied any wrongdoing.
“Sen. Cruz has not received one cent of royalties in connection with any ‘One Vote Away’ book sales,” Guest told Insider.
Outside political-committee groups often purchase books from candidates, too. And that in turn can help them become bestsellers. Candidates are allowed to collect royalties on those books, Fischer said.
In 2020, Senate Conservatives Action purchased $25,144 worth of books from Regnery, Cruz’s publisher, just four days before his “One Vote Away” book was set to hit the shelves.
But FEC data doesn’t show details about these kinds of purchases. Therefore, it’s not clear which specific book or books the Senate Conservatives Action bought. The group didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Also in 2020, a political committee jointly operated by Trump’s presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee spent six figures at a New Jersey bookstore to purchase what Insider discovered were “highly discounted” copies of “Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage,” written by Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas. The National Republican Congressional Committee also bought 25,000 copies of Crenshaw’s book to use as fundraising come-ons, Politico reported at the time.
Other kinds of books are selling, too
In general, members of Congress are not allowed to earn more than $29,595 in income outside of their federal salaries.
But book advances and royalties are exempted from these limits, as are certain other earnings, including from stock trades or rental properties.
While most members of Congress who write books pen works of nonfiction, there are exceptions.
Take Warren’s illustrated children’s book, “Pinkie Promises,” which was published in October. It’s a picture book about a girl, Polly, who runs for class president.
But one of the most prolific writers in Congress is Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican of Utah, who has written more than 17 books.
Stewart started writing during the 1990s, churning out techno-thrillers such as “Shattered Bone” and historical books such as “Seven Miracles That Saved America.” The hard work still pays off; the congressman earned $33,750.33 in royalties in 2020 from his body of work.
The work also included a memoir — though not about himself. Stewart cowrote “My Story” with Elizabeth Smart, the woman who gained nationwide attention after being abducted from her home as a 14-year-old, held captive, and finally rescued nine months later.
“Honestly, it was much harder than I thought it would be,” Stewart told the Deseret News in 2013 about the experience of writing the book. “It was difficult for me at first to find the line between an honest story and what a horrible, horrible experience it was for her, and at the same time, make it so that people would read it and walk away with more faith, hope and belief in the goodness in life.”