Comedian John Oliver and the team at his HBO program Last Week Tonight with John Oliver have hippity-hopped into the children’s book arena with A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Published in collaboration with Chronicle Books, the picture book by LWT staff writer Jill Twiss and illustrated by EG Keller, is the fluffy-tailed tale of Marlon Bundo, the Bunny of the United States (BOTUS) who falls in love with his perfect partner—a boy bunny named Wesley.
The story takes direct aim at U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s divisive policies and long-held anti-LGBTQ stance but also flies in the face of a brand-new Pence family collaboration: Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President (Regnery Kids), a picture book by Pence’s daughter Charlotte Pence, with illustrations by his wife, Karen, released on Monday, March 19. During a long segment about the Vice President on his program Sunday night, Oliver mentioned the Pence book and took particular offense that the publicity tour for the title would take the Pences to the Colorado headquarters of Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian organization founded by James Dobson, who has espoused sexual conversion therapy and whom Pence calls a mentor.
Oliver then announced the LWT team’s competing new project, noting that the book was immediately available at betterbundobook.com and focusonthefurmily.com, as well as on Amazon’s and Chronicle’s websites—hours ahead of the Pence family’s book release. One hundred percent of Last Week Tonight’s proceeds from A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo will be donated to two nonprofit organizations: the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth, and AIDS United, whose mission is to end the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. through strategic funding, research, and policy efforts.
Though A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo has an “instant” feel, it had actually been in the works since Mike Pence announced his family’s book last fall. According to Sarah Malarkey, executive editorial director at Chronicle, the LWT team was inspired by the Pence announcement and decided to do its own book. HBO, which has an established relationship with Chronicle, connected all the parties.
When asked what excited her about this project, Malarkey offered, “Every single part of it. I’m so proud to have published this book. It is completely aligned with our core values and our support of inclusiveness and democracy. And, Last Week Tonight is an amazing show. So, every single part of it was something that I wanted to be involved in, and that we as a company wanted to be involved in.”
The response so far, says Malarkey, has been phenomenal. “We’re selling 5,000 copies an hour on Amazon,” she said, “We’re up to 75,000 sold in less than 12 hours and we’re going back to press for another 150,000 copies. It’s really got momentum.” A simultaneously released digital audiobook edition, published by Audible, features narration by actor Jim Parsons with special guests Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper, John Lithgow, Jack McBrayer, and RuPaul. As of 10 a.m. ET today, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo sits at #1 in Amazon’s books category. It also holds #1 in audible audio and #2 in the Kindle store’s Paid category.
Malarkey believes the momentum will be further fueled by Oliver’s appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers (both airing Tuesday, March 20), as well as by some fortuitous seasonal timing. “Easter is on April Fools’ Day, and then we have Pride in June,” Malarkey noted. “There’s a three-month window that we can keep on selling this.”
There’s definitely strong sales potential down the line as well. “All the author royalties will continue to go to the nonprofits associated with the book,” said Malarkey. “So, it’s not like you have to buy it today to participate in the moment. You could buy it at Christmas.” Though there are currently no plans in place to do other books with Oliver and LTW, it’s not out of the question, based on the initial response from buyers. “I think after this week we should talk about more,” Malarkey said.
The Pence book has been enjoying a strong release of its own and, as of 10 a.m. Tuesday, it sits at #4 on the Amazon Books bestseller list. A spokesperson from Regnery said, “We are thrilled with the amazing success of Charlotte and Karen Pence’s new book, rocketing to #4 on Amazon in just the first day. We have 50,000 in print and are already going back to print for a second printing today.” And weighing in on any potential controversy surrounding the competing books, the Regnery spokesperson added, “We’d like to send a special thank you to John Oliver for all the free publicity, proving that even an attempt at smearing two lovely ladies and their pet bunny can have a silver lining.”
In Malarkey’s view, “There’s room for both books,” she said. “It’s a live and let live publishing act.” But going forward all bets are off. As sales and comments roll in, the LWT team and the Pence family may be discovering that there’s some truth to the age-old saying in the children’s publishing industry: It’s a bunny-eat-bunny world.