WASHINGTON — After he is out of the White House, President Barack Obama has said that he wants to become a venture capitalist, own part of an NBA franchise and avoid taking off his shoes during security screenings at commercial airports.
All of those goals, serious or not, might soon be achievable if Obama and his wife, Michelle, sign post-presidency book contracts for what literary agents and major publishers say could amount to $20 million to $45 million — more than enough to pay the estimated $22,000 monthly rent for the nine-bedroom home they will occupy in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington and foot the bill for flights on private jets. (Obama has said he would like to avoid commercial flights once he surrenders Air Force One.)
"His is going to be easily the most valuable presidential memoir ever," said Raphael Sagalyn of the ICM/Sagalyn Literary Agency, who predicted that Obama could earn as much as $30 million with a two- or three-book contract. "And I think Michelle Obama has the opportunity to sell the most valuable first lady memoir in history."
Other agents suggested similar numbers, but publishers — who are the ones who actually sign authors' checks — balked at such lofty evaluations, with several saying Barack Obama is unlikely to earn more than $12 million and Michelle Obama $10 million.
Robert Barnett, who served as Obama's agent on a 2004 book deal, and representatives for Crown, which published Obama's three previous books, declined to comment. So did the White House.
Obama may be the most successful presidential author since Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote 42 books, including the popular Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, published in 1885, and The Wilderness Hunter, published in 1893. But every winning presidential candidate since 1952 has written at least one book before entering the White House. John F. Kennedy was a success with Profiles in Courage, a bestseller that won a Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy's authorship of the book has since been questioned.
Obama's three books — Dreams From My Father, The Audacity of Hope and Of Thee I Sing — have sold more than 4 million copies, according to publishing lists, and earned him more than $10 million, according to financial disclosures.
Publishers hope that Obama's writing ability could make his memoir not only profitable in its first years but perhaps for decades to come. Among presidential memoirs, only the one by Ulysses S. Grant, published in 1885, is considered by many historians to be timeless.
Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father, has been praised as literary, and since taking office, Obama is widely seen as one of the most skilled speechwriters to ever put pen to legal pad in the Oval Office. There is also hope that he might open up about himself, as he did in his first book.
"You're going to sell a lot of books when you first publish Obama's memoir, but you could also sell a lot to your children's children," said David Black, a New York literary agent. "That doesn't happen all that often, but because this guy's a real writer, it has a good chance."
Writing books and giving paid speeches has become the preferred occupation of former presidents. Gerald Ford gave hundreds of speeches on what he called the "mashed potato circuit" after losing re-election in 1976. Ronald Reagan earned $2 million for eight days of speeches in Japan. Bill and Hillary Clinton earned $153 million between 2001 and 2015 from paid speeches, CNN estimated, and George W. Bush has quietly earned tens of millions.
But books are the preferred way to make money because they do not have the taint of paid speeches, and they generally sell well.
Despite a second term that left him among the most unpopular departing presidents in history, Bush's book Decision Points was a hit, selling about 2 million copies and earning Bush an estimated $10 million. Similarly, Bill Clinton's memoir, My Life, was a bestseller, with at least 1.4 million copies in print.
Memoirs by first ladies have also been profitable. Hillary Clinton earned an $8 million advance for Living History after she left the White House, and Laura Bush was paid millions for Spoken From the Heart.
Georges Borchardt, a New York-based literary agent, said that Barack Obama's popularity outside of the United States would make the foreign rights to his books more profitable than those for any other former president. "And the same goes for Michelle Obama," Borchardt said. "She can write whatever she wants."
Agents and publishers speculated that Obama's memoirs could come in two volumes, one for each term.
"I think the big surprise could come from Michelle," said Sandra Dijkstra, a literary agent based in San Diego. "But one thing is for sure: They'll be able to afford to buy that house on Martha's Vineyard they've been renting."